Jidoka, the Governing Principle for Built-in-Quality:


Harold Dodge said – “You cannot inspect quality into a product; it must be built into it.[1] This is something that has stuck with me ever since I entered the work force. This means that quality must be viewed as an intrinsic attribute of a manufacturing process. The idea of quality being part of the process cannot be brought out by talking to the employees or with slogans or short lived programs. In order to have quality be a part of the process, it has to be a part of the process intrinsically!

I came across the concept of James Watts’ centrifugal governor. This is essentially a feedback system that controls the speed of an engine at a desired state. This is shown in the picture above. As the speed increases, it causes the “flyballs” to move away from each other due to the centrifugal force and this cause the arms to go up, which controls the valve to reduce the fuel intake. This is beautifully explained by Stafford Beer in his 1966 book, “Decision and Control” [2]. He states that with the centrifugal governor, the system is brought under control in the very act of going out of control. The regulation is intrinsic (it is part of the system).

When you think about it, Jidoka in TPS is doing exactly that. Jidoka is the governing principle in TPS to ensure built-in-quality. Jidoka was introduced as a concept by Sakichi Toyoda with his automatic loom that stopped when a thread was broken. Jidoka was explained by Toyota as autonomation or automation with human touch. In Toyota’s little green book, The Toyota Production System – Leaner Manufacturing for a Greener Planet, Jidoka is explained as;

Jidoka is a humanistic approach to configuring the human-machine interface. It liberates operators from the tyranny of the machine and leaves them free to concentrate on tasks that enable them to exercise skill and judgment.

Jidoka ensures that the machines are able to detect any abnormality and automatically stop whenever they occur. This concept of stopping production when there is an abnormality was implemented on the production lines with the use of andon cords. When an operator identifies a problem that cannot be solved within the allotted time, the operator can pull on the andon cord to stop the production line, thus making the problem immediately visible. This is a “human jidoka”. This prevents defective items from progressing down the assembly line causing larger issues and wasting time. It also leads to identifying opportunities for improvement with the product and/or the process as well as a valuable time to provide coaching for the employee.

The concept of Jidoka is an effort to make built-in-quality intrinsic to the manufacturing process. Allowing the operator to stop the entire production line is an act of giving autonomy to the operator. The quality is not being pushed top-down, but allowed to emerge bottom-up. This is an example of what Toyota calls as “Good Thinking leading to Good Products”.

In a similar vein, I wanted to draw comparisons to Zen. In Zen, there is a concept of “monkey mind”. This is the racing mind that does not allow one to sit down and meditate. Many different thoughts and emotions go through the mind when one is trying to have a quiet mind. Buddha taught disciples to focus on the breath as way to calm down the monkey mind. This is a really hard thing to do and requires a lot of practice. When the mind drifts off, it needs to be brought back. The Zen teachers teach us that the source of control is also the mind, the very same thing that causes the focus to be lost. Meditation is the art of coming back to the focus again and again. My favorite story on this is from the great teacher Yunmen Wenyan.

 Yunmen was asked by his student, “How can I control my mind to not lose focus when I am trying to meditate?”

Yunmen replied, “The coin that is lost in the river can only be found in the same river.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Learning to See:

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Out-Crisis-Press-Edwards-Deming-ebook/dp/B00653KTES/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1497211354&sr=1-1&keywords=9780262297189

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Decision-Control-Operational-Management-Cybernetics/dp/0471948381

Learning to See:

Rembrant van Rijn - The Mill (Detailed) - 1648

Today’s post is not based on LEI’s book “Learning to See” [1] but on the delightful book “Art in Focus” by Gene. A. Mittler (1986 edition) [2]. In Mittler’s words, the purpose of the book is to help you acquire knowledge and understanding you will need to make and support your own personal decisions about works of art. The name of the first chapter is “Learning to See”.  The book begins with the Taoist quote;

To look is one thing.

To see what you look at is another.

To understand what you see is a third.

To learn from what you understand is still something else:

To act on what you learn is all that matters.

I started reading this book by happenstance. I flipped through the book and found many interesting sections that were quite descriptive of what I had learned in Toyota Production System(TPS). In TPS, we are asked to go to the gemba and observe the production floor so that we can “learn to see” waste and take action. To my delight, Mittler talks about a “search strategy” that he uses for gaining observation from works of art, that is very well applicable for us. His strategy includes (paraphrased);

  1. Description: Through which you try to find out what is going on,
  2. Analysis: Through which you discover how the work is organized or put together
  3. Interpretation: Through which you try to determine the information communicated
  4. Judgment: Through which you make your own decision based on your interpretation

In chapter 2, Mittler continues;

Art objects are unique arrangements of the obvious and the not so obvious. In order to understand any art object, you must be willing to go beyond the obvious and examine the not so obvious as well.

In order to accomplish understanding the obvious and not so obvious, Mittler talks about the elements and principles of art. The elements are what make up the art. The six elements of art, as noted by Mittler are;

  1. Color
  2. Value (Non-color)
  3. Line
  4. Texture
  5. Shape/Form
  6. Space

The principles are on the other hand used to organize the elements together so that “the organized whole” is brought out. The seven principles of art, as noted by Mittler are;

  1. Balance
  2. Emphasis
  3. Harmony
  4. Variety
  5. Gradation
  6. Movement/Rhythm
  7. Proportion

Both the elements and the principles utilized in the art brings out “the Unity of the Work”. The Unity refers to the total effect of a work of art.

In a similar fashion, we could state that the elements at the gemba are the 6Ms (Man, Method, Machine, Measurement, Material and Mother Nature/Environment). The principles might be Just-in-Time, Jidoka, Heijunka, Standardized Work, Respect for People and Kaizen. Mittler notes that a skillful blend of elements and principles results in a unified design, a design in which all the parts hold together to produce the best possible effect. In a similar fashion, paraphrasing Taiichi Ohno [3], one can state that a skillful blend of elements and principles results in a total manufacturing technology that reaches the whole business organization and results in cost reductions and profit increases.

It is interesting to think that observing the activities in gemba to understand what gemba is saying, can be like observing a painting to understand the ideas communicated by the artist. It paints a pretty picture! I will finish with a Zen story related by William Scott Wilson, The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea, 2012 [4];

When the old warrior Hosokawa Shigeyuki (1434–1511) retired as daimyo or territorial lord of Sanuki Province, he became a Zen priest. One day he invited a visiting scholar-monk, Osen Kaisan (1429–93), to see a landscape-painting he himself had brushed in ink on a recent trip to Kumano and other scenic spots on the Kii Peninsula. When the scroll was opened, there was nothing but a long, blank sheet of paper. The monk Osen, struck by the emptiness of the “painting,” exclaimed:

Your brush is as tall as Mount Sumeru,
Black ink large enough to exhaust the great earth;
The white paper as vast as the Void that swallows up all illusions.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Respect and Yokai:

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Learning-See-Stream-Mapping-Eliminate/dp/0966784308/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1496073986&sr=8-1&keywords=learning+to+see

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Art-Focus-Gene-Mittler/dp/002662270X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1496074133&sr=8-1&keywords=art+in+focus+1986

[3] Toyota Production System – Beyond Large-Scale Production Page 71.

[4] https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AWTM1K6/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

If a Lion Could Talk:


In today’s post, I am continuing with the theme of being inspired by philosophy. This post is inspired by the famous Austrian/British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [1]. In his posthumously published book “Philosophical Investigations” [2], Wittgenstein wrote;

If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.

One of the interpretations of this statement is that a lion has a totally different worldview than us, thus his values would be entirely different. Even though, we may have a common language, the intentions and interpretations would be completely different. A lion does not share a common frame of reference with us. The mutual understanding also depends upon whether we are interested in actively listening. Another aspect to think about is the non-verbal communication. The majority of human communication is non-verbal so simply talking does not convey the entire meaning. The meaning of a word depends upon the use of it within the context of a shared understanding.

When I was pondering about this, I started wondering whether we would understand if our process or gemba is “talking” to us. In some regards, they do talk to us through the visual controls we have in place. The visual controls lets us know how the process is going – but do we understand it?

The purpose of a visual control is to immediately make any abnormality, waste, or deviation visible so that we can immediately take action. Notice that I used “immediately” twice. This is how we should understand it. This sets the tone for how gemba talks to us. There are several ways that we fail to understand what the gemba is saying to us. A great resource for Visual controls is a collection of articles compiled from NKS Factory Management Journal, available in the form of the book “Visual Control Systems.” [3] Some of the ways Visual Controls can fail are;

1) A failure to understand what the visual controls are for:

One of the examples given of inadequate implementation of visual controls is to treat visual controls as a mere extension of 5S. The purpose of visual controls is, as noted above, to make abnormalities immediately visible. Additionally, action must be taken to address the problem.

2) Low problem consciousness among the employees:

If the employee is failing to make the abnormality visible, or if the supervisor / group leader or management is failing to take action immediately, the purpose of visual controls is being defeated. This leads to “business-as-usual” thinking.

3) Inadequate Visual Control Tools:

If there is no daily production board used, then any metric tracked is going to lead only to a delayed response. No timely action that can be taken. In a similar note, if the daily production board is located in a place that is not easy to see, the operators will not use it because of the inconvenience.

4) Lack of established standards for the visual controls:

In order to have the visual controls operate successfully, the establishment and dissemination of the rules of the visual controls must be performed. Everybody should know how to understand the visual control – what is the norm, what is good versus bad, signs something is abnormal etc.

I will finish off with a great Zen story that relates to the lack of understanding.

Provided he makes and wins an argument about Buddhism with those who live there, any wandering monk can remain in a Zen temple. If he is defeated, he has to move on. In a temple in the northern part of Japan two brother monks were dwelling together. The elder one was learned, but the younger one was stupid and had but one eye. A wandering monk came and asked for lodging, properly challenging them to a debate about the sublime teaching. The elder brother, tired that day from much studying, told the younger one to take his place. “Go and request the dialogue in silence,” he cautioned.

So the young monk and the stranger went to the shrine and sat down. Shortly afterwards the traveler rose and went in to the elder brother and said: “Your young brother is a wonderful fellow. He defeated me.”
“Relate the dialogue to me,” said the elder one.
“Well,” explained the traveler, “first I held up one finger, representing Buddha, the enlightened one. So he held up two fingers, signifying Buddha and his teaching. I held up three fingers, representing Buddha, his teaching, and his followers, living the harmonious life. Then he shook his clenched fist in my face, indicating that all three come from one realization. Thus he won and so I have no right to remain here.” With this, the traveler left.

“Where is that fellow?” asked the younger one, running in to his elder brother.
“I understand you won the debate.”
“Won nothing. I’m going to beat him up.”
“Tell me the subject of the debate,” asked the elder one.
“Why, the minute he saw me he held up one finger, insulting me by insinuating that I have only one eye. Since he was a stranger I thought I would be polite to him, so I held up two fingers, congratulating him that he has two eyes. Then the impolite wretch held up three fingers, suggesting that between us we only have three eyes. So I got mad and got ready to punch him, but he ran out and that ended it!”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Ehipassiko – Come and See:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_Wittgenstein

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Philosophical-Investigations-Ludwig-Wittgenstein/dp/1405159286

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Control-Systems-Innovations-Advanced-Companie/dp/1563271435

[4] Lion drawing by Audrey Jose

Ehipassiko – Come and See:

Einstein Poster

As I noted in my last post, I have been reading upon philosophy, both Western and Eastern. One of the terms that I came across in Eastern Philosophy is from Buddhism. The term is “ehipassiko”. This is a phrase from the Pali language, that Buddha used. This term is derived from the Sanskrit phrase “ehi, paśya”. Ehipassiko is loosely translated as “come and see for yourself”. One of the tenets of Toyota Production System is “Genchi Genbutsu” or “Go and See”. Genchi Genbutsu means to go to the source and grasp the facts.

Ehipassiko is a teaching by Buddha to not accept things based on what you hear. He is asking you to come and see for yourself. It is an invitation to come to the source and test things out empirically – to check out the nature of reality for yourself. I could not help but draw comparisons to Genchi Genbutsu when I read about ehipassiko. The teachings of Buddha are very well accepted and received in Japan. It may not be that Genchi Genbutsu was derived from ehipassiko, but there are similarities there.

Similar to Genchi Genbutsu in Toyota Production System, Honda also has a concept called “sangen shugi” or the three realities (3 gens). The Sangen shugi are;

  • Genba – the real spot, where the action takes place. This is also termed as Gemba by English translators.
  • Genbutsu – the actual part, the source of the problem
  • Genjitsu – the actual facts, to base your decision on reality and not opinions.

As Jeffrey Rothfeder writes in his 2015 book[1], “Driving Honda”, genba is where the knowledge begins; after maturing during genbutsu this knowledge serves as the footing for genjitsu where decisions are arrived at based on firsthand understanding. In turn, the facts that emerge during genjitsu organically inform the blossoming of the new information at future genba.

It is said that Buddha started teaching once he became Buddha, the awakened one. However, he did not want people to just take his words on authority. He wanted them to test it out for themselves – ehipassiko. I will finish this post with a story about Buddha;

Buddha was at a village called Kesaputta teaching. The villagers told Buddha that they were confused as to whose teaching is correct. Many teachers visited their village telling them that all the other teachings are wrong. Buddha then told them about ehipassiko.

He told them[2], “Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration that the person is our teacher.”

He asked them to be not passive about what they hear from the wise, but to actively question and test out to confirm the reality.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Popper’s Circle:

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Driving-Honda-Inside-Innovative-Company/dp/1591847974/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1492015964&sr=1-1

[2] “Kalama Sutta: The Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry”, translated from the Pali by Soma Thera. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wheel008.html.

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.

The Incomplete Solution:


The world of Systems is very wide and deep. This article does not claim to be perfect and all encompassing. The goal of this article is to emphasize that solutions based on incomplete models lead to incomplete solutions. I am not calling it incorrect solution- just incomplete solution. Every problem model is a mental construct. Unfortunately, this means that the problem “reality” and the problem “model” are not identical. The mental construct of the problem model depends very much on the person constructing the model. This is impacted by his mental models, heuristics, knowledge, wisdom and biases. This leads to what I am calling “the Incomplete Solution.

The system model must be as close to the actual system as possible. The problem model must be as close to the actual problem as possible. However, this cannot be done. Thus the problem model is an incomplete construct.  Furthermore, the solution must match the problem construct. Thus the solution derived from the incomplete problem model is also incomplete.  

The concept that a model of the system is required before regulating it comes from Conant and Ashby who said;

“Every good regulator must be a model of that system.”

They identified that any regulator that is maximally both successful and simple must be isomorphic with the system being regulated. Making a model is thus necessary. Daniel L. Scholten has stated this in terms of problem and solution as;

“Every Good Solution Must be a Model of the Problem it Solves.”


“Every Good Key Must Be A Model Of The Lock It Opens.”

However, humans are terrible at creating accurate models of systems due to limitations of the mental capabilities. This idea was put forward by Herb Simon, the great American thinker who won Nobel Prize for Economics in 1978, with the concept of “Bounded Rationality”. Wikipedia currently defines “Bounded Rationality” as the idea that when individuals make decisions, their rationality is limited by the tractability of the decision problem, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the time available to make the decision. The complete knowledge of all the details, and the consequences of the actions cannot be known. This indicates that a mental construct of a system is incomplete.

This concept is further echoed by the American statistician George Box who stated in the proceedings of a 1978 statistics workshop;

“All models are wrong but some are useful”.


“Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.”

The notion of “cause and effect” is paramount in the problem solving process. However, this idea cannot be as simple as that. One can use the idea of “cause and effect” to determine the complexity of the system. In an ordered system, the cause and effect is direct, and thus a problem statement is very straightforward. For example, turning the switch does not turn the light on, because the bulb is burned out. Replacing the bulb thus solves the problem.

In a complicated system, there are more layers and the cause and effect relationship is not straightforward. However, with the help of experts and solid problem solving processes, a good solution can be found. There will be several solutions that can work. The ordered and complicated systems use the approach of hard systems. They are deterministic in nature. An example of the complicated system might be the entire electrical wiring in a house. The cause and effect relationship may not be direct for inexperienced, but it can be established. In some regards, in the manufacturing world the processes are dealt as ordered or complicated, and there is a desire for high predictability from their operations.

In a complex system, there are several interwoven parts that make the cause and effect relationships murky. There are definitely no linear cause and effect relationships. Here the hard systems approach cannot be used. Moreover, the problem(s) in a complex system might be messes. One problem is most likely linked to other problems. Russell Ackoff, the great American Systems Thinker called this a mess. Ackoff said;

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consists of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and charts … Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.

Thus focusing on one problem may not show the whole picture. There can be hidden portions not visible to the team. For instance in Soft Systems Methodology, Peter Checkland advises not forming the problem statement until the rich picture is understood. Analysis, in soft systems approaches should consist of building up the richest possible picture of the problem situation rather than trying to capture it in system models. (Source: Systems Thinking, Mike Jackson.)

In ordered and complicated systems, the incomplete solutions may be adequate. In complex systems, this can have unintended consequences. Hard systems are based on a paradigm for optimization where as soft systems embrace a paradigm of learning. A good reference quote for this concept is – “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” by Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Final Words:

Incomplete solutions may be adequate in systems where the cause and effect relationships are linear and direct. However, in systems where the cause and effect relationships are murky and non-linear, the incomplete solutions can have unintended consequences and moreover, this detrimental impact may not be understood even in hindsight. Some of the ways we can improve our system models are;

  • Involve the people close to the system,
  • Go to the Gemba,
  • Encourage opposing and diverse worldviews and perspectives,
  • Understand that the solutions are incomplete, and thus never “done”,
  • Build in feedback systems,
  • Encourage diversity,
  • Understand long term thinking,
  • Complexity of the solution must match the complexity of the problem. Using a simple checklist or more training as the solution for a complex problem will not work.
  • Do not go for shortcuts and fast solutions (silver bullets). In some regards, this also explains why silver bullets do not exist. Simply copying and pasting methods (lean, six sigma etc.) without understanding your systems and the problems do not work. It can actually cause more harm in the long run.
  • Understand the cause and effect relationships,
  • Stay curious and always keep on learning.

The corollary to the incomplete solution is that – there is almost always a better solution than the one on hand. Thus there is always room for improvement.

I will finish off with one of my favorite Zen koans that looks at the dynamic nature of perspectives;

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, “The flag is moving.”

The other replied, “The wind is moving.”

Huineng overheard this. He said, “Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.”

Koans are beautiful because they raise questions in your mind when you hear them. There are no correct or wrong answers to the questions. They are meant to make you think. In this koan, the question might be – what did Huineng mean by the mind is moving? Perhaps Huineng is saying that the two monks’ minds are like the wind and the flag – not settled. The monks are fighting over who is right or wrong. The monks, who should be able to control their minds and focus on a still mind, are letting their minds flutter in the wind like the flag. The reality is that there is flag, there is wind, and the flag is moving.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Three Reminders for 2017.

Three Reminders for 2017:


As 2017 is unfolding, I wanted to write a post to remind myself of three pieces of advices for this year. They are from Epictetus (55-135 AD), Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD) and George Pólya (1887-1985). Epictetus and Aurelius are two famous Stoic philosophers of the past, and Pólya is a famous Hungarian mathematician.

1) Epictetus:

Epictetus spent his youth as a slave which laid the backdrop for his stoicism. His original name is unknown. The name “Epictetus” in Greek means “acquired”. Epictetus himself has not written any books, however his follower, Arrian, wrote down his teachings. One of the most famous quotes attributed to him is;

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

Epictetus’ famous work, The Enchiridion (Translated by Elizabeth Carter), starts off as;

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

In the same book, Epictetus continues;

“With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it.”

My thoughts:

The above quotes gel together to form an important lesson. Not all of my ventures are going to be successful this year. There may be several setbacks. However, all setbacks are experiences to learn from. They provide lessons that I can only learn from the school of life. They increase my knowledge and prepare me for the next harder setback. My triumphs are built on the setbacks I faced before. The setbacks provide an opportunity for reflection. To loosely paraphrase a lesson from Information Theory, failures have more information content. They provide a reason to challenge our hypothesis. Successes do not necessarily challenge us to take a second look at our hypothesis. We thus learn more from failures. The point is to not look for failures, but to keep an open mind. This is a great lesson to remember as a new year starts.

2) Marcus Aurelius:

Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, was a Roman Emperor. His famous work is “Meditations”.  My lesson from this book, translated by Maxwell Staniforth, is as follows;

“Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours.”

My Thoughts:

Far too often, we let the past dictate our present actions. Either we stay complacent and stay in our comfort zones by relying on our past victories; or we let our past failures control our actions and we remain in the comfort zone. Both these thought processes keep ourselves from taking risks or venturing outside our comfort zone. The past is past and the future is not yet here; what we truly have is the present moment. This Zen-like teaching is an important lesson for this year. We can only change the present moment by taking the right action. Of course, not all of our actions will lead to tremendous successes. This is covered under the first lesson above.

3) George Pólya:

George Pólya was born in Hungary and later came to America and taught at Stanford University.  One of the famous quotes attributed to him is;

“If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it.”

This quote was written by the famous Mathematician John H Conway in the Foreword to a 2004 printing of Polya’s book “How to Solve It”.

My Thoughts:

“How to Solve It” is a gem of a book written in 1945 by Pólya. The above quote attributed to Pólya is a great lesson when we are trying to solve a problem and we get stuck. Pólya offers two different plans of action. One is to find a similar but easier problem to solve. He says;

If you cannot solve the proposed problem do not let this failure afflict you too much but try to find consolation with some easier success, try to solve first some related problem; then you may find courage to attack your original problem again. Do not forget that human superiority consists in going around an obstacle that cannot be overcome directly, in devising some suitable auxiliary problem when the original one appears insoluble.

The second plan of action he offers is called as the Inventor’s Paradox. Loosely put; to prove what you want, try proving more than what you want so that you get the flow of information to work properly. George says that “the more ambitious plan may have more chances of success”. This idea is quite paradoxical. He advises that going to a more general problem is going to create more questions that may be easier to answer than just one question. This approach may lend us a new view at the problem that will help us solve the more general problem along with the original problem.

The two plans lead us to step back from the current problem and look at the problem from a different light. Pólya points to us the importance of “some vision of things beyond those immediately present”.

Final words:

The three lessons above have a common theme – obstacles. We can be certain that this year will come with obstacles; it is up to us to decide how to treat them. I wish all of you a great year, one that will make you a better person.

I will finish off with a great lesson in Zen from the great Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In his book, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, Suzuki Roshi talks about the story of four horses. He recalls the story from Samyuktagama Sutra. It is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent horses, good horses, poor horses and bad horses. The best horse will run as his master wishes before it sees the shadow of the whip. It can run fast and slow, right and left and always at the master’s will. The second best horse runs as well as the best horse and he does that just before the whip reaches its skin. The third best will run when it feels the pain on its body. Finally the fourth one will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!

Almost all of us want to be the best horse. If that is not possible we want to be the second best horse, and so on. However, in Zen this is the wrong approach. When you are determined to practice zazen (a form of sitting meditation), it is valuable to be the worst one. In your imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Suzuki Roshi continues that those who can sit perfectly physically usually takes the most amount of time to obtain the true way of Zen. But those who find great difficulties will find more meaning in it and thus obtain the actual feeling of Zen – the marrow of Zen. Thus the “worst one” may be the best student.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Clause for Santa – A Look at Bounded Rationality.

What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping in Systems?


Zen koans are stories that are meant to make you think. These lead to questions that do not always have correct answers. The purpose of a koan is to challenge your mental model and go beyond what you thought to have understood. One of my favorite koans is – what is the sound of one hand clapping?

As a teenager, I used to make my right hand alone clap and proudly say “this is the sound of one hand clapping”. This made me feel smart. But I was missing the point of the koan. There is no correct answer, but there is a correct response- to think, to meditate on what you think you know so that you realize you do not truly know it all. I have read that the answer to the sound of one hand clapping is any sound you want it to be and also that the correct answer is silence with the gesture of one hand clapping.

I had a curious thought recently – what is the sound of one hand clapping in light of systems thinking? Simplistically put, systems thinking is the understanding that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. This concept was first put forward by Aristotle. Aristotle taught that the whole is made up of its parts but it still differs from the sum of its parts. One key concept in systems thinking is the emergent properties in a system. Emergent properties are the unique characteristics of a system that are generated only from the interaction of different parts in the system. The emergent properties constitute the “wholeness”. No part taken alone can generate the emergent property. An example of an emergent property is the ability of a bicycle to go from one point to another. This ability only happens when a rider interacts with the different parts of the bicycle like the pedal, the steering, etc. Sometimes these emergent properties are designed into the system and sometimes these emergent properties are not clear when the system is being designed. The reductionist thinking is to take things apart and ignore the interactions between the parts. This is also referred to as mechanistic thinking. This type of thinking leads to local optimization which ultimately results in an inferior system performance.

Coming back to the question – the sound of clapping only happens with two hands. However, just by having two hands, there is no sound of clapping. The sound only happens when the two hands interact with each other. One hand alone does not generate a “half clap” such that two hands creates a “full clap” as the sum of two “half claps”. The two hands have to physically come in contact with certain force, and this generates the sound of clapping. The sound is an emergent property. Looking at the sound of one hand clapping is reductionist thinking. The emergent property of the sound of clapping come when two hands are taken together and the interaction understood.

Dr. Deming has talked about managing people from a systems view. If there are two people, A and B, then the true capability from these two people working together is not simply A + B. The true capability is A + B + AB – E, where AB is the interaction between A and B, and E is an error term I inserted to represent any noise that may arise due to the interaction with the environment. The most important role of a manager is not to manage people, but to manage the interactions between the people, and make it easy for them to do their job.

I will finish off with the koan of the sound of one hand clapping.

The master of Kennin temple was Mokurai, Silent Thunder. He had a little protege named Toyo who was only twelve years old. Toyo saw the older disciples visit the master’s room each morning and evening to receive instruction in sanzen or personal guidance in which they were given koans to stop mind-wandering.

Toyo wished to do sanzen also.

“Wait a while,” said Mokurai. “You are too young.”

But the child insisted, so the teacher finally consented.

In the evening little Toyo went at the proper time to the threshold of Mokurai’s sanzen room. He struck the gong to announce his presence, bowed respectfully three times outside the door, and went to sit before the master in respectful silence.

“You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together,” said Mokurai. “Now show me the sound of one hand.”

Toyo bowed and went to his room to consider this problem. From his window he could hear the music of the geishas. “Ah, I have it!” he proclaimed.

The next evening, when his teacher asked him to illustrate the sound of one hand, Toyo began to play the music of the geishas.

“No, no,” said Mokurai. “That will never do. That is not the sound of one hand. You’ve not got it at all.”

Thinking that such music might interrupt, Toyo moved his abode to a quiet place. He meditated again. “What can the sound of one hand be?” He happened to hear some water dripping. “I have it,” imagined Toyo.

When he next appeared before his teacher, Toyo imitated dripping water.

“What is that?” asked Mokurai. “That is the sound of dripping water, but not the sound of one hand. Try again.”

In vain Toyo meditated to hear the sound of one hand. He heard the sighing of the wind. But the sound was rejected.

He heard the cry of an owl. This also was refused.

The sound of one hand was not the locusts.

For more than ten times Toyo visited Mokurai with different sounds. All were wrong. For almost a year he pondered what the sound of one hand might be.

At last little Toyo entered true meditation and transcended all sounds. “I could collect no more,” he explained later, “so I reached the soundless sound.”

Toyo had realized the sound of one hand.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Never Let a Mistake Go To Waste.

The Value of Silence:


Today’s post is an introspective post for me. I will be looking at “silence”, its cultural implications in Japan, its use as a form of self-improvement and some stories about silence in the Toyota Production System. I was in a meeting recently, and during my self-reflection time at night, I observed that I did not learn or try to understand the perspective in the meeting. I was not listening because I was trying to prove my knowledge to the other side. I was not being silent or listening. Perhaps, I am a harsh critic of myself. But I have made up my mind that I will be practicing silence more.

One of my favorite sayings about silence is;

Knowledge speaks and wisdom listens.”

This is sometimes attributed to the great musician Jimi Hendrix. However, there is no proof that he did say this. There is a similar quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes;

“It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.”

I am an avid fan of Japanese Culture and interestingly, silence is an important facet in Japanese culture. It is said that it is tough to negotiate with Japanese businessmen since they employ long periods of silence that others are not used to. In the West, silence is generally unbearable. It is viewed as a break in communication. In Japanese culture, silence is viewed as a communicative act. Silence can be effectively utilized in negotiations since it can make the other side nervous. In the Japanese culture, however, silence has several positive attributes which includes being respectful and polite, and avoiding confrontation.

I am looking at silence in four regards as a practice of self-improvement;

  • Respect for others:

Stephen Covey said “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” He identified this as the fifth habit of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In Zen, there is a great lesson that you are given two ears and one mouth, and that their use must be in the same ratio – listen two times more than you speak.

  • Self Reflection:

Engaging in silence is a pre-requisite for self-reflection. This allows the mental fog to clear out and the mind to organize better. Think of silence as an act of clearing up space in your mind to allow deep-felt thoughts to come in.

  • Teaching:

Being silent sometimes prompts the other side to keep on talking and perhaps encourage them to come out of their comfort zone. This can have the effect of being a good sounding board for their ideas. This is similar to the Socratic teaching method of asking questions. But in this case, remaining silent allows the other side to focus on their thoughts more and find the solutions to the problems at hand.

  • Effectively Communicating:

This may seem counterintuitive, but engaging in silence can improve your communication. In Japanese calligraphy, the empty space is as important as the written words. This empty space is quite similar to the “negative space” in design. It is the valleys that point our attention at the hills. The same is applicable for the use of effective silence in communication.

Silence in the Toyota Literature:

There are two instances I have seen where “silence” jumped out at me. The first one was in Masaaki Sato’s “Toyota Leaders”, where Sato talked about the ex-President and Chairman of Toyota. Eiji was a person who employed silence in his communication; he considered each question seriously and provided responses after much thought. EIji is hailed by Forbes as the creator of the Modern Version of Toyota. EIji was also a strong supporter of Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System, and his “out of the ordinary” methods.

The second instance is from the book “Just-In-Time For Today and Tomorrow”, co-authored by Taiichi Ohno. In the book, Ohno talked about how the other employees were against his methods that would later become the Toyota Production System. All the hate and resentment were absorbed by his two managers, Eiji Toyoda and Saito Naichi. They both allowed Ohno to continue with his methods and to find ways of reducing manufacturing costs. Ohno referred to their relationship as a silent relationship of mutual trust. They both did not question Ohno and in turn Ohno did not ask for their approvals.

“I knew all too well how they worried about me and what I was doing. Yet they never said “Do This!” or “Do that!” For my part, I never had to say “I’d like to do this” or “Please let me do that.”I just did everything I thought had to be done. Had I asked permission, my resolve would have weakened because of the pressure to prove what I was doing. Had either side said anything, the relationship would have collapsed.”

Final Words:

This post was written as a reminder to myself to use silence more. I will finish with a great Zen story on silence;

There once was a monastery that was very strict. Following a vow of silence, no one was allowed to speak at all. But there was one exception to this rule. Every ten years, the monks were permitted to speak just two words. After spending his first ten years at the monastery, one monk went to the head monk. “It has been ten years,” said the head monk. “What are the two words you would like to speak?”

“Bed… hard…” said the monk.

“I see,” replied the head monk.

Ten years later, the monk returned to the head monk’s office. “It has been ten more years,” said the head monk. “What are the two words you would like to speak?”

“Food… stinks…” said the monk.

“I see,” replied the head monk.

Yet another ten years passed and the monk once again met with the head monk who asked, “What are your two words now, after these ten years?”

“I… quit!” said the monk.

“Well, I can see why,” replied the head monk. “All you ever do is complain.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Spirit of Mottainai in Lean.

Own Your Lean Journey:


One of my favorite quotes by Taiichi Ohno came when he was scolding a supervisor for not coming up with his own ideas to solve the problem at hand. The supervisor was trying to do just as he was told. Ohno remarked;

“You are a fool if you do just as I say. You are a greater fool if you don’t do as I say. You should think for yourself and come up with better ideas than mine.”

If we are to heed Ohno’s words, he is asking us to “own” our lean journey and avoid copying Toyota because Toyota’s solutions are specific to Toyota’s problems. If we do not have Toyota’s problems, their solutions might not work. Even Toyota has evolved and adapted to continue being the leader of the automotive world.

In a similar vein Ohno said the following;

“Defend your own castle by yourself!” (Source: Tom Harada)

Ohno wants us to take charge and be in control of our own destiny. These are strong words for a Lean Leader. Ohno’s teachings and sayings are very similar to several of the Zen koans – not everything is straightforward, and they have rich and deep meaning. Ohno’s quotes remind me of a quote from Buddha;

“Don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe me because others convince you of my words. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts. Don’t rely on logic alone, nor speculation. Don’t infer or be deceived by appearances. Find out for yourself what is true and virtuous.”

Buddha’s words add a deeper understanding to what Ohno said.

Final Words:

The essence of Ohno’s advice is about understanding our problem at hand and going outside our comfort zone. Being inside our comfort zone means that we are not venturing out on our own, we are copying what we have heard or seen. By understanding the problem at hand, we can propose countermeasures, experiment with ideas and break the mental models holding us back.

I will finish this off with a story about Buddha;

Buddha was teaching his disciples one morning.

A man came up to him and asked Buddha. “Does God exist?”

“He does,” Buddha responded.

About noon time, another man came to Buddha and asked, “Does God exist?”

“No, he does not,” Buddha replied.

Later that day, a third man came to Buddha and asked the same question, “Does God exist?”

“That is for you to decide,” was Buddha’s answer.

After the man left, Buddha’s disciples started questioning him. “Master, why did you give  such varying answers to the same question?”

Buddha smiled and replied, “Because they are all different people, and each one of them will reach God by his own path. The first man will believe what I say. The second will do everything he can to prove me wrong. The third will only believe in what he is allowed to choose for himself.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Aim for System Optimization with Kaizen.