Lessons from Genkan:


Readers of my blog know by now that I am a “Japanophile”. Keeping up with that theme, I will be talking about “genkan” today. Genkan is a small sunken area behind the front door of a Japanese house. This vestibule has a great significance in the Japanese culture. A guest coming to a Japanese house should open the front door to enter genkan, and calls out “Gomen kudasai” (“Anybody home?”) The house owner can then come out and carry a conversation while the guest stays in the genkan. The genkan allows the opportunity to conduct any informal business like paying bills or having a short conversation. The genkan allows the opportunity to not engage in any formal etiquette that will be required if the guest enters the house. If the guest is welcomed inside the house, the guest is expected to remove his shoes while inside the genkan and have the shoes facing towards the door.

The word genkan means is made up of two characters “gen” and “kan”; “gen” stands for mysterious or profound, while “kan” stands for barrier or connection point, Genkan stands for dark and mysterious entrance. The concept of genkan comes from the Zen temples. The term genkan was used metaphorically to remind everyone entering a Zen temple that it is the path to the realm of enlightenment. When a student wishes to join a Zen temple/monastery, he is supposed to stand in the genkan in a bowing posture sometimes for days. During this period, his desire to join the monastery will be tested in many different ways. This ritual is called as “niwazume”. The concept of genkan was adopted by the samurai and included in the houses.

As Michael Lazarin explains in his paper, “A Phenomenology of Japanese Architecture: Heidegger and Derrida”:

We can see that the genkan is not simply a way of getting into or out of the house, a place for changing and storing shoes. lt serves an important social function; it provides a way of getting around the excessive formalities of Japanese social life. lt provides a way of being familiar with someone who, as visitor, is also estranged. lt de-ranges the formalities in order to arrange social communication. Without such a space, people raised according to traditional standards of politeness would be at a loss.

I was very enthralled when I learned about genkan. I loved the idea of a place where the formalities can be ignored. This idea can be of great use at a workplace. In many workplaces, innovation and creativity are stymied due to the rigid policies and procedures in place. The thinking behind the  rigid rules and procedures is that they promote standardization and structure. Unfortunately, if they cannot match the local variety needed, they will break or worse create a stymied workplace that people want to leave. The inflexibility of the procedures causes stagnation. In such a situation, we can learn from genkan. We can create an “informal” area or space where rules are not applicable, and where we can experiment safely and fail as many times as needed. The failures will be in a controlled environment and this leads to innovation, creativity and learning. This brings to my mind, the ideas of the Soviet engineer, Peter Palchinsky. Palchinsky was killed in 1929 due to his political standings. He was the focus point of the book, “The Ghost of the Executed Engineer” by Loren Graham. Tim Harford also wrote about Palchinsky in the book “Adapt”.

Peter Palchinsky’s ideas can be summarized as follows (from Tim Harford’s Adapt):

  • Seek out new ideas and try new things.
  • When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable.
  • Seek feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.

In “The Ghost of the Executed Engineer”, Loren Graham wrote:

Although Palchinsky praised the idea of central planning, he thought that the central plan should be very general, allowing many local variations. It should allow room for individual initiative.

Another example of having an “informal” program outside of the norm is now defunct (?) Google’s 20 percent initiative. Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey noted in 2004: “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google,” the pair wrote. “This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.” Several successful initiatives like Gmail and Adsense came out of this initiative.

Does your workplace have a genkan?

I will finish with the story of Dazu Huike. The custom of niwazume perhaps goes all the way back to Dazu Huike. Dazu Huike was the student of Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma, a south Indian prince, was the first Chinese patriarch for Chan Buddhism, and considered by many to be the creator of Shaolin Kungfu.

Legend has it that Bodhidharma initially refused to teach Huike. Huike stood in the snow outside Bodhidharma’s cave all night, until the snow reached his waist. In the morning Bodhidharma asked him why he was there. Huike replied that he wanted a teacher to “open the gate of the elixir of universal compassion to liberate all beings”.

Bodhidharma refused, saying, “how can you hope for true religion with little virtue, little wisdom, a shallow heart, and an arrogant mind? It would just be a waste of effort.”

Finally, to prove his resolve, Huike cut off his left arm and presented it to the First Patriarch as a token of his sincerity. Bodhidharma then accepted him as a student, and changed his name from Shenguang to Huike, which means “Wisdom and Capacity”.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Tesler’s Law of Conservation of Complexity:

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