Distrust Simplicity:


In today’s post, I will be looking at the famous quote from the famous English mathematician and philosopher, Alfred Whitehead.

Seek simplicity, and then distrust it.

This quote comes from his 1920 collection of lectures, The Concept of Nature. The quote is embedded in the paragraph below:

Nature appears as a complex system whose factors are dimly discerned by us. But, as I ask you, Is not this the very truth? Should we not distrust the jaunty assurance with which every age prides itself that it at last has hit upon the ultimate concepts in which all that happens can be formulated? The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, Seek simplicity and distrust it.

I like this idea a lot. We are all asked to keep things simple, and to not make things complicated. Whitehead is asking us to seek simplicity first, and then distrust it. Whitehead talks about “bifurcation of nature” – nature as we perceive it, and the nature as it is. Thus, our perception of reality is an abstraction or a simplification based on our perceptions. We need this abstraction to start understanding nature. However, once we start this understanding process, we should not stop. We should build upon it. This is the scientific method – plan the prototype, build it, assess the gap, and continue improving based on feedback.

As I was reading The Concept of Nature, several other concepts came to my mind. The first one was Occam’s razor – the idea that Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. Seek the simplest explanation, when all things are equal. At the same time, we should keep Epicurus’ Principle of Multiple Explanations in mind – If more than one theory is consistent with the observations, keep all theories. I also feel that Whitehead was talking about systems and complexity. As complexity increases, our ability to fully understand the numerous relationships decreases. As the wonderful American Systems thinker Donella Meadows said:

We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.

Seeking simplicity is about the attempt to have a starting point to understand complexity. We should continue to evolve our understanding and not stop at the first abstraction we developed. One of the famous Zen story is about the teacher pointing his finger at the moon. I have talked about this here. We should not look at the finger and stop there. We should look at where the finger is pointing. The finger is the road sign and not the destination itself. The simplicity is a representation and not the real thing. We should immediately distrust it because it is a weak copy. Seeking simplicity is not a bad thing but stopping there is. Simplicity is our comfort zone, and Whitehead is asking us to distrust it so that can keep improving our situation – continuous improvement. Whitehead in his later 1929 book, The Function of Reason, states:

The higher forms of life are actively engaged in modifying their environment… (to) (i) to live, (ii) to live well, (iii) to live better.

Final Words:

In seeking simplicity, we are trying to be “less wrong”. In distrusting our simplified abstraction, we are seeking to be “more right”. I will finish with a Zen story.

A Zen master lay dying. His monks had all gathered around his bed, from the most senior to the most novice monk. The senior monk leaned over to ask the dying master if he had any final words of advice for his monks.

The old master slowly opened his eyes and in a weak voice whispered, “Tell them Truth is like a river.”

The senior monk passed on this bit of wisdom in turn to the monk next to him, and it circulated around the room from one monk to another.

When the words reached the youngest monk he asked, “What does he mean, ‘Truth is like a river?’”

The question was passed back around the room to the senior monk who leaned over the bed and asked, “Master, what do you mean, ‘Truth is like a river?’” Slowly the master opened his eyes and in a weak voice whispered, “OK, truth is not like a river.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Cannon’s Polarity Principle:


Cannon’s Polarity Principle:


I recently read the wonderful book “On the Design of Stable Systems”, by Jerry Weinberg and Daniela Weinberg. I came across a principle that I had not heard of before called “Cannon’s Polarity Principle”. Cannon’s Polarity Principle can be stated as the strategy that a system can use to overcome noise by supplying its own opposing actions. If a system relies on an uncertain environment to supply the opposing factor to one of its regulatory mechanisms, that mechanism must have a much more refined model. By supplying its own opposing factor, it can get away with a much simpler model of the environment.

This principle is one of those things that is profound yet very simple. The Weinbergs give the example of a sticky knob on a gas stove to explain this idea. If the knob is sticky then it is tricky to raise the flame to the precise point we would like it to be. Due to the “stickiness” we will try to apply much more force than needed and inadvertently overshoot, going past the desired point. The result is that the flame is at a much higher setting. When we try to turn the flame down we are still in the same situation and again go past the point where we would like to be.

What we can do instead is to use one hand to push against the direction we would like and then slowly try to turn the knob with our other hand. With this approach we can be much more refined and be at our desired position. By working “against” our own goal, we make precise adjustment possible in the face of an unknown, but small, amount of stickiness.

This got me thinking. There are several times where we apply opposing forces to slow us down, to take the time to reach the correct decision (precise adjustment). One of my favorite Toyotaism is – Go slow to go fast. This makes a lot of sense in the light of the Polarity Principle. Any time we are doing a root cause analysis, we are prone to a plethora of biases including confirmation bias – selectively looking for ideas that reinforce our thinking, and availability bias – latching on to the first idea because that was the immediate idea we came up with. These biases might make us jump to unwarranted conclusions to address symptoms, and not addressing the root problem(s). The Polarity Principle would advise us to slow down.

I will finish this short and sweet with an apt Zen saying:

The one who is good at shooting does not hit the center of the arrow.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Contextual Why:

Contextual Why:


One of the scientists that I have referenced in my posts a lot is the American physicist Richard Feynman. I particularly love his imaginary depiction of Mayan astronomy. Feynman went to Mexico for his second honeymoon and came across a copy of the Dresden Codex (one of the oldest surviving books from the Americas). He was particularly interested in the bars and dots in the codex. He was able to decipher the number system that the Mayans used to depict Venus’ trajectory in the solar system. He was so good at it that he was able to find that some of the versions were actually fakes. Feynman imagined the Mayans counting and putting nuts in a pot to make predictions of where Venus would be on a given day. Feynman was curious whether the Mayans actually knew what was happening (why it was happening) or whether they were going by the rules and making predictions based on a rule-based system of counting and manipulating numbers. Feynman stated that the Mayans may have gotten really good with counting but they must not have understood how the celestial bodies worked.

The push for following rules without understanding the context is unfortunate. Yet this is very prevalent. The rigidity of the rules cannot be sustained when a complex situation arises. The rigidity of rules indicates a direct linear relationship where cause and effect are clearly noted. This is the push for standardization and having one best way of doing things. This leads to stagnation, since this stymies creativity and the push for innovation. Rigid rules always break. Another way to look at this is as the push for robustness – avoiding failure by any means. We will put redundant steps, perform multiple inspections and implement punishments for not following rules. In the complex world, we should accept that things will fail – the push should be for resilience, getting back up in a short time. The rules are dictated top-down since the rules are created by the experts. These rules do not have the requisite variety to tackle the uncertainties of day-to-day dealings. The contexts of these rules do not match the actual context where the action takes place – the context at the gemba. Context is what brings out the meaning in a situation. The focus on rules and efficiency through best practice does not lead to having the requisite variety to change the context as needed to address a problem when it arises. We are involved in complex adaptive systems on a day-to-day basis. We need to change context as needed and adapt to respond to unanticipated events. Evolution requires that we have variety. This response is not always rule-based and is developed depending upon the context. We should allow room for bottom-up heuristics, since these are based on experience and local context.

As a simple example, let’s look at 5S, one of the most commonly identified lean tools, to look into this more. 5S is translated from Japanese as Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize and Sustain. The rules are provided to us and they are clear cut. Similar to the Mayan story, do we actually know the context for 5S? Toyota did not have 5S. The last few S’s were added on later. This has now changed into 6S and even 7S. The “sort” step in 5S is to have only the required tools needed at the station. The “straighten” step is to identify/label the tools so that operators from other shifts or job rotations can easily find the tools. The third step is “shine” where the work station is cleaned by the operator. This allows the operator to find any spills or other signs of wear and tear that may not be seen by a cleaning crew. These three steps help the operator to identify problems as they occur, raises awareness and helps to take pride in the work. The fourth step is “standardize” and this is mainly a regulatory function to ensure that the first three steps are followed. The last step is “sustain”, which means to integrate the first three steps so that they become the normal routine and if they are not followed, one feels like something is missing. The context is to help the operator do his or her job better and be effective. The context is that a problem is made visible immediately so that it can be addressed and people can be developed. The context is not following rules. The context is not applying 5S in areas where it does not make sense. The context certainly is not policing people. When the context of what the operator does is not made clear, they do what makes sense to them in their context – at that time with the limited information they have. Empty actions do not have context and are thus meaningless and non-value adding.

Seek to understand the perspectives of your employees. Seek to understand their local context. Seek to make them understand your context, and the context of the shared goals and objectives. Heed to their stories. Develop your employees to see problems.

I will finish with an interesting question that was posed by some French researchers in the late 1970’s.

“On a boat, there are 26 sheep and 10 goats. What is the age of the captain?”

Perhaps, you might see this as a trick question. Perhaps, you may use the two numbers given and come up with the answer as 36. The answer 36 sounds right. The answer that the researchers expected was “I do not have enough information to give the answer.”

To the researchers’ surprise, very few subjects challenged the question. Most of them reasoned in their context and came up with a number that made sense in their mind. We are not trained to ask the contextual questions.

Always keep on learning and ask contextual questions…

In case you missed it, my last post was MTTF Reliability, Cricket and Baseball:

Mismatched Complexity and KISS:



In today’s post, I will be looking at complexity from the standpoint of organizational communication and KISS. For the purpose of this post, I am defining complexity as a measure of computational effort needed to describe your intent. This idea of complexity is loosely based on Kolmogorov’s definition of “Complexity” from an algorithm standpoint.

To give a very simple example, let’s say that I would like to convey two messages, M1 and M2:

M1 = 010101

M2 = 100111

From the complexity standpoint, M2 requires more effort to explain because there is no discerning pattern in the string of numbers. M1, on the other hand, is easier to describe. I can just say, “Repeat 01 three times.” For M2, I have no choice but say the entire string of numbers. In this regard, I could say that M2 is more complex than M1.

Let’s look at another example, M3:

M3 = 1415926535

Here, it may look like there is no discerning pattern to the string of numbers. However, this can be easily described as “first 10 decimal values of pi without 3. Thus, this message also has low complexity. We can easily see a direct linear relationship or know the content just by observation/empirical evidence.

The examples so far have been examples of low complexity messages. These are easy to generate, diffuse and convey. From the complexity standpoint, these are Simple messages. If I were to create a message that explained Einstein’s relativity, it may not be easily understood if the receiver of the message does not have a good grasp of Physics and advanced math. This is an example of medium complexity or a complicated topic. The relationship is evident with all of the information available.

Now let’s say that I would like to create a message about a complex topic – solve poverty or solve global warming. There is no evident relationship here that can be manipulated with an equation to solve the problem. These are examples of wicked problems – there are no solutions to these problems. There are options but none of the options will fully solve the many intricate problems that are entangled with each other. Such a topic is unlikely to be explained in a message.

The common thread in communication or solving problems is the emphasis on KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). However, in an effort to keeping things simple, we often engage in mismatched complexity. Complex ideas should not be exclusively conveyed as simple statements. The ideal state is that we use the optimal message – adjust complexity of the message to match the complexity of the content. This is detailed in the schematic below. The optimal message is the 45 degree line between the two axes. A highly complex topic should not be expressed using a low complex message such as a slogan or policy statement. In a similar fashion, a low complexity topic does not need a high complexity message method such as an hour-long meeting to discuss something fundamental.

message diagram

The highly complex topic can use both low and medium message methods to ensure that the complex idea is conveyed properly. The diffusion of the highly complex topic can build upon both low and medium message methods. The diffusion of a highly complex topic also requires redundancy, which means that the message must be conveyed as many times as needed and use of metaphors and analogies. One definition of “communication” from the great Gregory Bateson is – Communication is what the receiver understands, not what the sender says.

A good example to explain this is Toyota Production System. The concept of a production system for the entire plant is a complex concept. Toyota Production System was once called “the Ohno method” since it was not implemented company-wide and there was doubt as to the success of the system being a long-term plan. Ohno’s message was not written down anywhere and the employees did not learn that from a manual or a video. Ohno conveyed his ideas by being at the gemba (actual work place), implementing ideas and learning from them. He also developed employees by constantly challenging them to find a better way with less. Ohno used to draw a chalk circle on the floor for supervisors/engineers to make them see what he saw. He developed the Toyota Production System and with continuous mentoring, nurtured it together with the employees. Today there are over 1000 books at Amazon regarding “Lean Manufacturing”. When top management is looking at implementing lean, the message should match the complexity of the content. Low complex message methods like slogans or placards will not work. Medium complex message methods like newsletters, books etc will not work. This will require constant on-the-floor interactive mentoring. At the same time, slogans and newsletters can aid in the diffusion process.

Final Words:

I have always felt that KISS and Poka-Yoke have a similar story to tell from a respect-for-people standpoint. Poka-Yoke (Error proofing) was initially termed as Baka-Yoke to indicate “fool proofing”. Shigeo Shingo changed it to Poke-Yoke to indicate error proofing after an employee asked him “have I been such a fool?” In a similar fashion, KISS was initially put forth as “Keep It Simple Stupid” (without the comma). Nowadays, this has been changed to “Keep It Short and Simple” and “Keep It Simple Straightforward”.

It is good to keep things simple and to view at a problem from a 10,000 feet level. However, we should not stop there. We need to understand the context and complexity of the problem and then create this information in such a manner that it can be diffused across the organization. This can be repeated as many times as needed. Do not insist on simplicity without understanding the complexity of the problem. Asking to keep things simple is an attempt to keep round pegs in familiar square holes. When there is a mismatch of complexity it leads to incorrect solutions and setbacks. As Einstein may have said,everything should be as simple as it can, but not simpler”.

We can also view the complexity/message diagram in the light of the Feynman (Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman) technique of studying hard subjects. Feynman came up with a method where he would start studying and making notes pretending to prepare a lecture for a class. He would use simple terms and analogies to explain the subject. When he got stuck he would go back and try to understand it even better. He would then proceed with making notes. He would repeat the steps many times until he got the concept thoroughly. Moving from High to Medium to Low in the diagram, and going back-and-forth helps to connect the dots and gain a better understanding.

I will finish with another quote, attributed to Lotfi Zadeh (father of Fuzzy Logic):

“As complexity rises, precise statements lose meaning and meaningful statements lose precision.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Flat Earth Lean:

Flat Earth Lean:


How many interpreters does it take to change a light bulb?

It depends on the context!

In today’s post, I will be looking at what I call “Flat Earth Lean” and “Contextual Lean”. I recently came across the concept of “Flat Earth View” in organizational communication. Matthew Koschmann, currently an associate professor at the University of Colorado, talks about the one-dimensional approach to organization communication where the big picture is not used. It is a linear approach without looking at the contexts or the social aspects. Koschmann explains – What I mean by a flat earth approach is a perspective that seems correct from a limited vantage point because it works for much of our day to day lives, but ultimately it fails to account for the complexity of a situation. For much of human history we got by just fine thinking the earth was flat, even though it was always round. And even with our 21st century sophistication where we know the earth is round, most of us can actually get by with flat earth assumptions much of the time. But what about when things get more complex? If you want to put a satellite into space or take a transcontinental flight, flat earth assumptions are not going to be very helpful. Remember in elementary school when you compared a globe to a map and realized, for example, that it s quicker to fly from New York to Moscow by flying over the North Pole instead of across the Atlantic? What seems counter intuitive from a flat earth perspective actually makes perfect sense from a round earth perspective.”

I would like to draw an analogy to Lean. Perhaps, the concept of flat earth exists in Lean as well. This could be looked at as the tools approach or copying Toyota’s solutions to apply them blindly. The linear approach implies a direct cause and effect relationship. From the Complexity Science standpoint, the linear relationship makes sense only in the simple and complicated domains. This is the view that everything is mechanistic, utilizing the metaphor of a machine – press this button here to make something happen on the other side with no unintended consequence or adverse effects. In this world, things are thought to be predictable, they can be standardized with one-glove-fits-all solutions, and every part is easily replaceable. Such a view is very simplistic and normally cares only about efficiency. This is an approach that is used for technical systems. There is limited or no focus on context. Hajime Ohba, a Toyota veteran, used to say that simply copying Toyota’s methods is like creating the image of Buddha and forgetting to inject soul in it. In Flat Earth Lean, the assumption is that end goal is clearly visible and that it is as easy as going from HERE to THERE. The insistence is always to KISS (keep it simple stupid). In many regards, this reductionist approach was working in the past. Information generation was minimal and the created information was kept local in the hands of the experts. In today’s global economy, organizations do not have the leisure to keep using the reductionist approach. Today, organizations not only have to ensure that information is diffused properly, they also have to rely on their employees to generate new information on a frequent basis. The focus needs to be shifted to organizations being socio-technical systems where things are not entirely predictable.

Here to There

Karl Weick, an American organizational theorist, advises to “complicate yourself”. He cautions us to not rely on oversimplification. We need to understand the context of what we are doing, and then challenge our assumptions. We have to look for contradictions and paradoxes. They are the golden nuggets that help us to understand our systems. In Contextual Lean, we have to understand our problems first and then look for ways to make things better. Implementing 5S with the aim of being “Lean” is the Flat Earth Approach. Implementing 5S and other visualization methods to make sense of our world, and making problems visible so that we can address them is “Contextual Lean”. If there is such a thing as “going Lean” for an organization, it is surely a collective expression. “Lean” does not exist in isolation in a department or in a cabinet; let alone in one Manager or an employee. To paraphrase the great philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the meaning of an expression exists only in context. Context gives meaning. Toyota’s “Lean” has limited meaning in relation to your organization since it makes sense only in the context of the problems that Toyota has. Thus, when the Top Management pushes for Lean initiation, it has to be in the context of the problems that the organization has. Understanding context requires self-reflection and continuous learning for the organization. This again is a collective expression and does not exist without involving the employees. Interestingly, Contextual Lean has to utilize Flat Earth approach as needed.

Flat Earth and Contextual Lean have some similarities to the late American business theorist Chris Argyris’ ideas of Single and Double Loop learning. Single Loop learning is the concept of correcting an error by using the existing mental models, norms and practices. Argyris gives the example of a thermostat to explain this – Single loop learning can be compared with a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and then turns the heat on or off. The thermostat is able to perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and therefore take corrective action. Double Loop Learning, on the other hand, involves a reflective phase that challenges the existing mental models, norms and practices, and modifies them to correct the error. In Chris Argyris’ words –If the thermostat could question itself about whether it should be set at 68 degrees, it would be capable not only of detecting error but of questioning the underlying policies and goals as well as its own program. That is a second and more comprehensive inquiry; hence it might be called double loop learning. Single Loop Learning has some similarities to Flat Earth Lean in that it wants to take a simplistic approach and does not want to modify the mental models. It wants to keep doing what is told and to use an old analogy – only bring your hands to work and leave your brains outside. Single Loop Learning is a superficial approach to solve problems symptomatically. Double Loop Learning has some similarities to Contextual Lean in that it is not one-dimensional and results in modifying the mental models as needed. It is a continuous learning and adapting cycle. Argyris also believed that organizations learn when its people learn – Organizational learning occurs when individuals, acting from their times and maps, detect a match or mismatch of outcome to expectation which confirms or disconfirms organizational theory-in-use.

I will finish with a fitting contextual story about change.

Mulla Nasrudhin was now an old man. People used to gather around to hear him talk. One day a young man asked for some words of wisdom.

Mulla replied, “When I was young I was very strong minded- I wanted to awaken everyone. I prayed to God to give me the strength to change the world. As time went on, I became middle aged and I realized that I did not change the world. Then I prayed to God to give me strength so that I can at least change those close around me. Now that I am older and perhaps wiser, my prayer has become simpler. I say – God, please grant me the strength to change at least myself.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Purpose of Visualization:

Which Way You Should Go Depends on Where You Are:


I recently read the wonderful book “How Not To Be Wrong, The Power of Mathematical Thinking” by Jordan Ellenberg. I found the book to be enlightening and a great read. Jordan Ellenberg has the unique combination of being knowledgeable and capable of teaching in a humorous and engaging way. One of the gems in the book is – “Which way you should go depends on where you are”. This lesson is about the dangers of misapplying linearity. When we are thinking in terms of abstract concepts, the path from point A to point B may appear to be linear. After all, the shortest path between two points is a straight line. This type of thinking is linear thinking.

To illustrate this, let’s take the example of poor quality issues on the line. The first instinct to improve quality is to increase inspection. In this case, point A = poor quality, and point B = higher quality. If we plot this incorrect relationship between Quality and Inspection, we may assume it as a linear relationship – increasing inspection results in better quality.

Inspection and Quality

However, increasing inspection will not result in better quality in the long run and will result in higher costs of production. We must build quality in as part of the normal process at the source and not rely on inspection. In TPS, there are several ways to do this including Poka Yoke and Jidoka.

In a similar fashion, we may look at increasing the number of operators in the hopes of increasing productivity. This may work initially. However, increasing production at the wrong points in the assembly chain can hinder the overall production and decrease overall productivity. Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System, always asked to reduce the number of operators to improve the flow. Toyota Production System relies on the thinking of the people to improve the overall system.

The two cases discussed above are nonlinear in nature. Thus increasing one factor may increase the response factor initially. However, continually increasing the factor can yield negative results. One example of a non-linear relationship is shown below:


The actual curve may of course vary depending on the particularities of the example. In nonlinear relationships, which way you should go depends on where you are. In the productivity example, if you are at the Yellow star location on the curve, increasing the operators will only decrease productivity. You should reduce the number of operators to increase productivity. However, if you are at the Red star, you should look into increasing the operators. This will increase productivity up to a point, after which the productivity will decrease. Which Way You Should Go Depends on Where You Are!

In order to know where you are, you need to understand your process. As part of this, you need to understand the significant factors in the process. You also need to understand the boundaries of the process where things will start to breakdown. The only way you can truly learn your process is through experimentation and constant monitoring. It is likely that you did not consider all of the factors or the interactions. Everything is in flux and the only constant thing is change. You should be open for input from the operators and allow improvements to happen from the bottom up.

I will finish off with the anecdote of the “Laffer curve” that Jordan Ellenberg used to illustrate the concept of nonlinearity. One polical party in America have been pushing for lowering taxes on the wealthy. The conservatives made this concept popular using the Laffer curve. Arthur Laffer was an economics professor at the University of Chicago. The story goes that Arthur Laffer drew the curve on the back of a napkin during dinner in 1974 with the senior members of then President Gerald Ford’s administration. The Laffer Curve is shown below:

Laffer curve

The horizontal axis shows the tax rate and the vertical axis shows the revenue that is generated from taxation. If there is no taxation, then there is no revenue. If there is 100% taxation, there is also no revenue because nobody would want to work and make money, if they cannot hold on to it. The argument that was raised was that America was on the right hand side of the curve and thus reducing taxation would increase revenue. It has been challenged whether this assumption was correct. Jordan used the following passage from Greg Manikiw, a Harvard economist and a Republican who chaired the Council of Economic Advisors under the second President Bush:

Subsequent history failed to confirm Laffer’s conjecture that lower tax rates would raise tax revenue. When Reagan cut taxes after he was elected, the result was less tax revenue, not more. Revenue from personal income taxes fell by 9 percent from 1980 to 1984, even though average income grew by 4 percent over this period. Yet once the policy was in place, it was hard to reverse.

The Laffer curve may not be symmetric as shown above. The curve may not be smooth and even as shown above and could be a completely different curve altogether. Jordan states in the book – All the Laffer curve says is that lower taxes could, under some circumstances, increase tax revenue; but figuring out what those circumstances are requires deep, difficult, empirical work, the kind of work that doesn’t fit on a napkin.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Epistemology at the Gemba:

Meditations at the Gemba:


In today’s post, I am looking at Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” and how it relates to us today. Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD, was a follower of Stoicism, a type of philosophy that extols a way of life based on moral virtue. It emphasizes logic and rationality, and views man as a microcosm corresponding to the macrocosm of the universe. Man has to use his reason to discern the universal order present in nature and he is obligated to live his life in accordance with nature [1].  I have identified 10 lessons from “Meditations” that I hope will be valuable to the lean leader. I have used the translation of “Meditations” by George Long for my notes[2].

1) Make Time for Contemplation:

“We ought to remember not only that our life is daily wasting away and a smaller part of it is left, but also that if a man should live longer, it is quite uncertain whether his mind will stay strong enough to understand things, and retain the power of contemplation to strive after knowledge of the divine and human.”

Marcus believes in making time for contemplation. He encourages us to “retire” into ourselves to recharge on a frequent basis. This is similar to the concept of “Hansei” in Lean. He continues;

“It is in your power, whenever you shall choose, to retire into yourself.”

Marcus talks of cleansing your soul so that you are free of discontentment and this allows you to return to the “stale things” with a refreshed mind. He reminds the reader that things cannot touch your soul since they are external to you, and that our perturbations come from our own opinions and viewpoints. This too shall pass.

2) Observe the Small Things in the Light of the Big Picture:

“We ought to observe also that even the small characteristics of things produced according to nature have something in them pleasing and attractive.”

Marcus believed that everything must be aligned with nature. Even the smallest detail has its own charm and beauty in the big picture. Marcus talks about the example of the cracks in the surface of a loaf of bread. In his eyes, they are beautiful even though they were not designed or intentionally added by the baker. They are visually appealing and stimulate the appetite. Observing small details in relation to the bigger picture is a beautiful thought. On the contrary, small characteristics are not pleasing and attractive when they are not according to nature. This is an important lesson for us at the Gemba – Why is the operator reaching out to get his retracted tool every time? Small characteristics not according to nature indicate all of the wasteful motions which can have a negative impact on a rational natural process.

3) Labor Not Unwillingly:

“Labor not unwillingly, nor without regard to the common interest, nor without due consideration, nor with distraction”.

When we do something, do we pay attention to the purpose? How many times do we catch ourselves doing things without thought, just to realize that we have wasted away a whole weekend. Does my action do anything to improve the common betterment of my organization, my family, or my neighborhood?

Marcus continues;

“On every occasion a man should ask himself, ‘Is this one of the unnecessary things?’”

Tim Ferriss talks about a Not-To-Do list [3], which is a list of things not to be done instead of a list of thing that needs to be done. This different approach trains our minds to pay attention to the habits that secretly steal valuable time away from us.

Marcus also advises us to “Do every act with a purpose.”

4) Don’t Jump to Conclusions:

“Honor the faculty which produces opinion. On this faculty it entirely depends whether there exists in your ruling part any opinion inconsistent with nature and the constitution of a rational being. And this faculty urges freedom from hasty judgment.”

Marcus clearly explains why we should not jump to conclusions. We need to recognize the faculty to ensure that the opinion is consistent with nature (virtuous) and rational.

Marcus continues;

“Make for yourself a definition or description of every object presented to you, so as to see distinctly what it is in its own naked substance, complete, and entire.”

Marcus is advising us to use a methodical approach to give us a rational and virtuous opinion when a situation presents itself to us the next time at the Gemba.

5) Be Virtuous:

“Whatever you do, do it as befits that character of goodness in the sense in which a man is rightfully supposed to be good. Hold this rule in every act.”

Virtue is a key theme in Stoicism. Virtue is getting the human mind aligned with nature.

Marcus continues;

“To a rational being the act that is according to nature is according to reason.”

The natural life is one controlled by reason. Stoics believe that happiness is found in virtue. How would you apply this in your organization? Are people happy in your organization? Does your organization provide happiness to your neighborhood? For example, one of Toyota’s Guiding Principles is –  “Dedicate our business to providing clean and safe products and to enhancing the quality of life everywhere through all of our activities.”

6) Pursuit of Rationality:

“Always hasten by the short way: and the short way is the natural one. Say and do everything in conformity with sound reason. For such a rule frees a man from trouble and strife and artifice and ostentatious display.”

Marcus is advising that the easy way is not necessarily the shortest way. The path chosen with sound reason, in alignment with nature is the short one. In the first manual of Toyota Production System, there was a concept that was introduced as the “pursuit of rationality”. Marcus has explained this really well. It is not always about efficiency, but about effectiveness. We should pay more attention to effectiveness than efficiency.

7) Staying Calm:

“You can pass your life in a calm flow of happiness, if you can take the right way, and think and act in the right way. The two things common to the soul of God and to the soul of man, and to the soul of every rational being, are not be hindered in their purpose by another; and to holds good the disposition of justice and the practice of it, and in this to let your desire find its satisfaction.”

Stoics are expected to remain calm in all situations, like an emotionless being. This is not exactly true. Stoics are expected to express emotions like being startled by a loud sound, but they are not to dwell on the emotion. They find calmness and happiness when they do not let the opinions and emotions control them. They do not get distracted by the acts of others or by things that are beyond their control, as long as they stay on their path. This is similar to the Serenity Prayer[4].

Marcus continues;

“I do my duty. Other things do not trouble me, for they are either things without life or things without reason, or things that have wandered and know not the way.”

“No man can hinder you from living according to reason of your own nature; nothing will happen to you contrary to the reason of the universal nature.”

Things can go against your way on a frequent basis at the Gemba. To be a good leader, heed Marcus’ advice.

8) Holistic View:

“Consider frequently the connection of all things in the universe and their relation to one another.”

 “All parts in the universe are interwoven with one another, and the bond is sacred. Nothing is unconnected with some other thing.”

“Observe the continuous spinning of the thread and the single texture of the web.”

Marcus believed in the grand scheme of things and the natural order. He advises us to look at everything from a systems standpoint. Everything is connected to one another. Changing one thing here can cause changes at another end, and sometimes we cannot anticipate the extent of the consequences.

“That which is not good for the swarm, is not good for the single bee.”

He also advises us to look at the optimization from a system standpoint and not from a local optimization standpoint.

9) Respect:

“He who acts unjustly acts irreverently. For since the universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another, to help one another according to their worth, but in no way to injure one another.”

“First, do nothing thoughtlessly or without a purpose. Secondly, see that your acts are directed to a social end.”

Being rational in Stoicism means to work towards a  common good in accordance with nature. This also indicates that you should allow everybody to reach their greatest potential, which is the rational thing to do. Harmony is a key theme in Stoicism, and this means being harmonious with nature as well as with other human beings. There is a lot of similarities between the concept of “Wa” in the Japanese culture. I have talked about it here [5].

Marcus also talked about being willing to request help from others.

“Be not ashamed to take help… Stand erect or be helped to stand erect.”

10) Change Must Happen:

“Is anyone afraid of change? Why, what can be done without change?”

Marcus advises us that change is inevitable. Marcus continues;

“Life is more like wrestling than dancing, in that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets, however unexpected.”

We must be ready to wrestle while being rational. We should pursue rationality, engage in contemplation on a regular basis, do things that are only just, and be prepared.

Final Words:

Marcus Aurelius did not write “Meditations” in the hopes that it would be read by generations to come. He wrote these passages as part of his journal. The book does not have any particular organized structure to it. It is also strange that the title that Marcus gave to the book did not mean “Meditations”. In Greek, it meant “To Himself”. The title was given by an anonymous person much later.

My favorite section from the book also captures the essence of the book:

“Where every act must be performed in accord with the reason which is common to gods and men, we have nothing to fear; when we can profit by activity which is successful and in harmony with our nature, need suspect no harm.

Everywhere and at all times it is in your power to accept reverently your present condition, to behave justly to those about you, and to exert your skill to control your thoughts, that nothing shall steal into them without being well examined.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Gemba Playlist:

[1] Ethics: The Study of Moral Values – Mortimer J Adler and Seymour Cain

[2]Marcus Aurelius and His Times by Walter J Black Inc.

[3] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/not-to-do-list-9-habits-stop-now-tim-ferriss

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer

[5] https://harishsnotebook.wordpress.com/2016/05/15/the-idea-of-wa-in-nemawashi/

Concept of Constraints in Facing Problems:


In today’s post, I will be looking at the concept of constraints in facing problems. Please note that I did not state “solving problems”. This is because not all problems are solvable. There are certain problems, referred to as “wicked problems” or complex problems that are not solvable. These problems have different approaches and none of the approaches can solve the problems completely. Some of the alternatives are better than the others, but at the same time they may have their own unintended consequences. Some examples of this are global warming and poverty.

My post is related to the Manufacturing world. Generally in the manufacturing world, most of the problems are solvable. These problems have a clear cause and effect relationships. They can be solved by using the best practice or a good practice. The best practice is used for obvious problems, when the cause and effect relationship is very clear, and there is truly one real solution. A good practice is employed where the cause and effect relationship is evident only with the help of subject-matter-experts. These are called “complicated problems”. There are also complex problems where the cause and effect relationships are not evident. These may be understood only after-the-fact. An example for this is launching a new product and ensuring a successful launch. Most of the time, the failures are studied and the reasons for the failure are “determined” after the fact.

The first step in tackling these problems is to understand what type of problem it is. Sometimes, the method to solve a problem is prescribed before the problem is understood. Some of the methods assume that the problem has a linear cause and effect relationship. An example is 5 why. 5 why assumes that there is a linear relationship between cause and effect. This is evident in the question – “why did x happen?”  This works fine for the obvious problems. This may not work that well for complicated problems and never for a complex problem. One key thing to understand is that the problems can be composite problems, some aspects may be obvious while some aspects may be complicated. Using a prescribed method can be ineffective in these cases.

The concept of constraints is tightly related to the concept of variety. The best resource for this is Ross Ashby’s “An Introduction to Cybernetics” [1]. Ashby defined variety as the number of distinct elements in a set of distinguishable elements or as the logarithm to base 2 of the number of distinct elements. Thus, we can say that the variety of genders is 2 (male or female) or as 1 bit (based on the logarithm calculation). Ashby defined constraint as a relation between two sets. Constraint only exists when one set’s variety is lower than the other set’s variety. Ashby gives the axample of a school that only admits boys. Compared to the set of gender (boys and girls), the school’s variety is less (only boys). Thus the school has a constraint imposed on itself.

A great resource for this is Dave Snowden and his excellent Cynefin framework [2]. Snowden says that ontology precedes epistemology or in other words data precedes framework. The fundamental properties of the problem must be understood before choosing a “tool” to address the problem. Prescribing a standard tool to use in all situations is constraining oneself and this will lead to ineffective attempts at finding a solution. When the leader says we need to use lean or six sigma, this is an attempt to add constraints by removing variety. Toyota’s methodologies referred to as Toyota Production System, was developed for their problems. They identified the problems and then proceeded to find ways to address them. They did not have a framework to go by. They created the framework based on decades of experience and tweaking. Thus blindly copying their methodologies are applying constraints on yourself that may be unnecessary. As the size or scope of a project increases, it tends to increase the complexity of the project. Thus enterprise wide applications of “prescribed solutions” are not generally effective since the cause-effect relationships cannot be completely predicted leading to unintended consequences, inefficiency and ineffectiveness. On the other hand, Ashby advises to take note of any existing constraints in a system, and to take advantage of the constraints to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

A leader should thus first understand the problem to determine the approach to proceed. Sometimes, one may have to use a composite of tools. One needs to be open for modifications by having a closed loop(s) with a feedback mechanism so that the approach can be modified as needed. It is also advisable to use heuristics like genchi genbutsu since they are general guidelines or rules of thumb. This does not pose a constraint. Once a methodology is chosen, then a constraint is being applied since the available number of tools to use (variety) has now diminished.  This thinking in terms of constraints prevents the urge to treat everything as a nail when your preferred tool is a hammer.

I will finish with a great story from the great Zen master Huangbo Xiyun;

Huangbo once addressed the assembly of gathered Zen students and said; “You are all partakers of brewer’s grain. If you go on studying Zen like that, you will never finish it. Do you know that in all the land of T’ang there is no Zen teacher?”
Then a monk came forward and said, “But surely there are those who teach disciples and preside over the assemblies. What about that?”
Huangbo said, “I do not say that there is no Zen, but that there is no Zen teacher…”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Jidoka, the Governing Principle for Built-in-Quality:

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Cybernetics-W-Ross-Ashby/dp/1614277656

[2] http://cognitive-edge.com/blog/part-two-origins-of-cynefin/

Entropy in the Manufacturing World:


In today’s post, I will be looking at Entropy in the Manufacturing world. Entropy is generally defined as disorder. This general definition can sometimes be inadequate. Let’s look at the example of a desk in an office; One could say that if the desk appears to be in order (neat and tidy), then it has low entropy. However, the concept of orderliness is very subjective. Entropy can be referred to as the measure of disorderliness. To me, if I am able to know where everything is, and I can access each item quickly, then my desk has low entropy. It may not seem “ordered” to an outsider, and he may conclude that my desk has high entropy. The second law of Thermodynamics can be loosely stated as – the entropy always increases. Thus, a desk will always get messier. There is a probability aspect to entropy. There are many different ways the things on my desk can be arranged, and only a very small number of those arrangements can be concluded as “ordered”. There is a multitude of more ways a desk can be seen more disorderly than the small number of ways it can be seen as orderly. Thus, from a probability standpoint, it is always likely that a desk is messy unless there is a consistent process in place to keep it back to the “ordered” state at frequent intervals. This line of thinking also shows that the more things you have on your desk, your desk is always most likely to be in a state of “messiness”. Interestingly, 5S in Lean requires you to limit the number of items in an area to only those items that are needed. All of the extra items are encouraged to be removed.

Entropy can also be explained in terms of the element of surprise. For example, a brand new deck of playing cards in order has low entropy because one knows exactly where every card is. There is minimal element of surprise. If one were to riffle shuffle the cards once, there is still some form or order maintained in the cards. For example, the order of the cards from Ace to King is not disturbed. There may be some different cards in between, but the Three of Hearts is still above Four of Hearts, even though there may be other suit cards in between them. This concept is known to magicians and used in several magic tricks. When the cards are shuffled again and again, the knowledge of any form of order is lost, and the entropy thus increases. With a good shuffled deck of cards, any card presents an element of surprise – new information. With the same logic used in the previous paragraph, it is very unlikely that continuous shuffling will bring a deck back to the original new deck order. There is always more ways for the deck to be in a different order than a new deck order. In the new deck order, if you are required to produce the King of Hearts, it is simple to do it since you know the order of the cards. You can do this fairly quickly. However, when the deck is shuffled, this becomes harder. You will need more time to look through every single card until you get to the King of Hearts. Although it is not exactly the same, it is stated that as entropy increases, it causes decaying of energy. In other words, the useable energy becomes less and less. Thus if one were to put the concept of value with regards to entropy, one could say that high entropy states do not yield value. Jeremy Campbell, in his wonderful book “Grammatical Man” states;

“At the heart of the second law (of Thermodynamics) is the insight has order has value.”

From this light, one can understand the need to maintain order in the manufacturing plant. The management strives to maintain low entropy within the manufacturing system, and they surely do not appreciate elements of surprises. From their viewpoint, painting all cars black does make sense. Producing the same item in big numbers using the principles of mass manufacturing is an attractive proposition for management. More number of products and components bring disorder and increase in entropy. Thus minimizing the variety of products manufactured also will be an attractive proposition for management.

However, the world has become smaller globally, and the market is asking for variety. From a Complexity Science standpoint, one can say that the manufacturing processes are ordered or complicated. There are good cause and effect relationships, and these can be easily controlled. However, the complexity outside a manufacturing plant is increasing with the advent of the information age. A manufacturer in China can sell his goods in America, and vice-versa easier. The demand for variety from the market is increasing and the manufacturer cannot make only black cars anymore to stay in business.

The management has to realize that the organizations are not technical systems, but sociotechnical systems. When you treat an organization as a technical system you assume that direct, linear cause and effect relationships exist, and that it is able to control the system through hierarchy. The most important requirement in this case becomes to minimize entropy. Entropy has a negative relationship with efficiency in mechanical (technical) systems. The goal of a sociotechnical system is not primarily to lower the entropy at all times. Complexity lies between low entropy and high entropy. Complex problems require complex dynamic solutions. Organizations should become complex adaptive systems and be able to move between phases in order to thrive. “Everything changes” is the reality, and thus the organization should be able to change and adapt the actions to meet the needs posed by the environment. The idea of order implies a state of permanence. The organization has to go through phases of permanence and impermanence to be able to thrive. Analogically, this is similar to the idea of kaizen in the Toyota Production System, where kaizen requires standards. Kaizen, the idea of change to improve, requires order (standards).  This is also the going back and forth between permanence and impermanence. In the complex world today, nothing should be set in stone.

I will finish with a wonderful lesson from Shunryū Suzuki-roshi;

“Suzuki Roshi, I’ve been listening to your lectures for years,” a student said during the question and answer session following a lecture, “but I just don’t understand. Could you just please put it in a nutshell? Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?”

Everyone laughed. Suzuki laughed.

“Everything changes,” he said. Then he asked for another question.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Minimal Critical Specification.

Minimal Critical Specification:


In today’s post, I will be looking at Cherns’ second principle of Sociotechnical Design – Minimal Critical Specification. Albert Cherns, the late famous social scientist who founded the Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, documented nine principles for designing a sociotechnical system (1976). I discussed one of these nine principles, the Forth Bridge principle earlier here.

The principle of Minimal Critical Specification has two aspects, negative and positive, according to Cherns;

  1. The negative aspect states that no more should be specified than is absolutely essential.
  2. The positive aspect states that we need to identify what is essential.

Cherns continued – “While it may be necessary to be quite precise about what has to be done, it is rarely necessary to be precise about how it is to be done… It is a mistake to specify more than is needed because by doing so options are closed that could be kept open.”

This is quite an enlightening lesson from Cherns. A common misconception about leadership and managers is that it is the manager’s responsibility to determine what needs to be done, and then tell the employees exactly what needs to be done. This type of thinking is a leftover from Tayloristic Management from the turn of Twentieth century. Frederick Taylor’s brilliant contribution that worked at the time, was to focus on the labor activities and improve efficiency by streamlining motion and eliminating wasted motions. An unavoidable consequence from this was to view the operator as any other equipment. This meant that the operator was asked to bring his pair of hands to work and not his brains. The brains were provided by the managers and engineers. From a complexity science standpoint, this is using the perspective of a complicated system. There is some form of a cause and effect relationship, and with the help of experts we can control how the complicated system works. In other words, this is viewing an organization as a technical system in some regards. This leads to relying on a small group of experts to determine how the system should be designed. This worked at that point in time because, to put simplistically, the world was not complex then or not as complex as it is currently. The demand for variety from the market was easily attained by the variety that was able to be offered by the manufacturing plants. Tayloristic thinking paved the way to mass manufacturing and great hikes in productivity. However, the information age changed the world landscape, and the use of complicated thinking did not seem to work anymore. There came a realization that all organizations are sociotechnical systems. In Cherns’ words, the realization was that the organizational objectives were best met not by the optimization of the technical system, and the adaptation of a social system to it, but by the joint optimization of the technical and the social aspects.

It is said that the management style at Toyota is not to tell the subordinate exactly what needs to be done. The manager’s role is to develop the subordinate by allowing him to come up with solutions, and in turn develop oneself through the process. This concept aligns neatly with the principle of Minimal Critical Specification. Telling exactly what needs to be done is managing people, however developing them by giving them the minimal critical specification is managing the interactions that act on the subordinate. Russell Ackoff, the great American Systems Thinker, advises us that the most important role of a manager is not to manage people, but to manage the interactions between the people, making it easy for them to do their job. Toyota also talks about their production system as the Thinking Production System. Toyota does not see their employees simply as a pair of hands, but as a valuable resource which allows Toyota to grow.

Another aspect that Cherns talked about with the principle of Minimal Critical Specification was regarding bureaucracy. He complained that most organizations have too much specificity regarding how things should be conducted. He even says that “working to rule” can bring the whole system to a grinding halt and that employees have to contrive to get the job done despite of the rules.  Dave Snowden, the great thinker of modern times and creator of the Cynefin Framework, has talked about the dangers of using too many constraints on an ordered system where there is a strong cause and effect relationships. The employees create informal structures and processes to work around the strict constraints. This means that the problems, when they arise, do not always come to the surface. They stay hidden from the top management. Unfortunately, this means that when the system ultimately breaks down, it is generally catastrophic because the system is not prepared and the informal structures are simply not capable.

I will finish with a Zen story;

Zen teachers train their young pupils to express themselves. Two Zen temples each had a child protégé. One child, going to obtain vegetables each morning, would meet the other on the way.

“Where are you going?” asked the one.

“I am going wherever my feet go,” the other responded.

This reply puzzled the first child who went to his teacher for help. “Tomorrow morning,” the teacher told him, “when you meet that little fellow, ask him the same question. He will give you the same answer, and then you ask him: ‘Suppose you have no feet, then where are you going?’ That will fix him.”

The children met again the following morning.

“Where are you going?” asked the first child.

“I am going wherever the wind blows,” answered the other.

This again nonplussed the youngster, who took his defeat to his teacher.

“Ask him where he is going if there is no wind,” suggested the teacher.

The next day the children met a third time.

“Where are you going?” asked the first child.

“I am going to the market to buy vegetables,” the other replied.

 Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Incomplete Solution.