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Clear Mind, Better Work

by Mark Donovan

In 2011, I took some time off from work (running knitwear factory operations for our company Wooden Ships in Bali) to participate in a ten day silent Vipassana meditation course. I was blown away. Aside from the incredible sense of inner peace and harmony with which I emerged, I was struck at how many interesting parallels there are with Lean.

I see it this way: The course was exceptionally challenging both physically and mentally. We rose at 4am and spent close to nine hours per day in meditation practicing the technique that was built incrementally day-by-day. We started by working on Anapana meditation which focuses the mind on respiration. On day one my mind was all over the place. By day two I could sit for an hour focusing on my breath with minimal wandering. On day four, with the mind further developed to focus at an even finer level of detail, the Vipassana technique was introduced. From there we practiced daily going deeper and deeper into the technique until the end. There were 75 minute discussions each evening so the training to practice ratio was about 1-8.

We were working in the mind's gemba. While there was an obvious focus of strengthening the mind's power and ability to concentrate, what struck me was this was accomplished by removing the "waste" (all of the unneeded stimuli to which the mind was previously jumping). Furthermore, as the sub-conscious mind gets re-trained to not automatically react but observe everything calmly with an equanimous mind, old baggage starts to rise to the surface and a purification process begins.

Like Lean, Vipassana may be studied at an intellectual level, but it cannot be understood or practiced at that level. It requires experiential learning. You have to do the actual work. You have to “go see” how the mind is actually working at the deepest level and re-train it. 

Like Lean, the benefits are exceptionally clear and powerful. Many of the same factors that prevent Lean from reaching critical momentum are likely also at play with Vipassana. The biggest may be that it is hard work and the benefits are not always immediate. If you do the work you get the benefit. It is that simple.

I emerged from the course exhausted and a bit disoriented. However, I immediately noticed a sense of calm and peace I have never known. I went through the airport absolutely unfazed by any of the usual annoyances. I felt a much stronger desire to make every interaction one based upon love, peace, and harmony. Cliche as it sounds, it is precisely the way I feel. My mind has become so sensitized that if I start doing something inconsistent with my values or aims my body sends me an andon. I feel my heart accelerate or my muscles tense and I can immediately stop and fix the problem. 

While this technique is beneficial for anyone who is willing to practice it seriously (at least an hour both morning and evening), I believe it is a perfect fit for any serious lean practitioner. Lean practitioners already understand the importance of discipline, hard-work, process, dedication, and a long-term outlook. After participating in this you will understand that meditating for two hours each day is not a waste of time but an investment that actually pays off both in the short-term (on a smaller scale) and in the long-term (on an enormous scale). 

Vipassana is an amazing practice developing the mind, which is the foundation of everything else, including inner peace and working harmoniously with others. Vipassana is also principle-based so anyone practicing seriously will automatically develop a purpose that serves the society and the betterment of mankind. It is not based upon any religion or sect, although this is often misunderstood, which makes it universal in its application.

When I returned to the factory, hard work was still there waiting for me, but I found I was able to approach each situation with a clearer mind. I was more able to focus on the real problem at hand, our real objective as a team or a company. 

I'm curious, how many business owners and operations managers out there have a meditation practice? What impact it has had on your lean journey?

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8 Comments | Post a Comment
Tri Nguyen July 03, 2013
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I absolutely agree with what Mark is saying.  Clearing our Mind from unnecessary thoughts and fears in order to focus on the task at this very moment in time is the essence of Lean.  My Mind is my worst ennemy.  It spends 90% of the time thinking about the past and the future which have no bearing on what I should be concentrating on Now. Spending energy thinking about things that I have no control over is a big Waste. 

I have learned that by perfecting the present, I am planning for the future.  The past is gone. I can learn from it but should not dwell on it.


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Jerry Zhu July 04, 2013

Thanks Mark to share us a wonderful article! I totally agreed Lean concept can be applied anywhere. Also I think we can find the linkage from any two things/concepts if we have the ability to drill down to the orgin of these things/concept. 



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Michael Ballé July 12, 2013
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This might sound silly, but having practiced meditation for years, I approach the gemba as a meditative exercise, with, in particular three forms of gemba meditation: one is choiceless meditation, where I look at the gemba withut choosing what to pay attention to, and see what pops into my mind/eyes, two is directed meditation, where I look narrowly for muri, mura and the resulting muda, and how the existing visual conditions create inventives for either, and three is hypôthesis testing where I mentally formulate a causal hypothesis and I try to confirm/infirm it by simply looking long enough and not asking any one for further elements.

Furtherrmore, I find that gemba can be demanding when one has been directly involved in the changes as no mother finds here baby ugly, and no one is immune from protectiveness and defensiveness. Practicing non-identification with one's own throughts and emotions is key to reducing stress and keeping a fresh open mind on the gemba, even wehn confronted with one's own obvious mistakes and misconceptions.

I have been wondering lately about the final point of working harmoniously with others through meditation, and I indeed believe teamwork is a key part of lean thinking - I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I certainly hope that a meditative mind on the gemba fosters benefits to society and working harmoniously with others!



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Mark Donovan August 07, 2013
Thanks for your comments Michael.  I love the idea of approaching the gemba as a meditative exercise and specifically your three forms.  By creating a point of focus and letting our minds settle on it for a period of time we are sure to gain better clarity and insight.  Too many of my "go sees" are more like hit-and-runs.  I'm headed back to my gemba tomorrow and will experiment with this concept.  I'd love to also hear from others that are experimenting with this idea.  

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Mike Orzen July 21, 2013
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Great post for Mark! I have been practicing meditation and yoga for over 15 years and have also found the heightened awareness that comes from daily practice (Sadhana). Meditation and yoga gives one a clarity of mind that keeps judgments and assumptions in check. This is a great help is truly "seeing" versus filtering what we see and hear.

One company I worked with was so interested in the impact of meditation that they allowed me to teach breathing techniques (Pranayam) and meditation techniques during a very intense Kaizen event. That same day, the team responded by coming together and delivering a truly radical idea to a long-standing problem that had not been left for dead as "we'll never fix that!"

For me, the most exciting effect of meditation is how it impacts the mind's view of other people. Instead of labeling people and putting them in a box based on unconscious paradigms, the meditative mind easily accepts others as they are, reserves judgment and deals in facts - sounds like respect for the individual and management by facts!

Another benefit of meditation is the ability to clearly reflect on oneself, a process, a customer, a vendor, a coworker or even a value stream. To really see is a gift that eludes most people. This critical reflection can be a springboard for personal excellence as well or organizational improvement.



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Jack Bowhan July 29, 2013

A very interesting post and comments.  I have been working at a meditative practice for a little over two years, though not nearly as intensely as Mark.  Like Tri and Mike I agree meditation has helped me eliminate the waste of dwelling on the past and things I can’t change, and to be less judgmental and more curious of others perspectives’.



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Mark Donovan August 07, 2013
Great comments Mike.   The potential impact of group meditation in the workplace is an emerging field that I find very interesting.  Few doubt the benefits of meditation for the individual yet the impact in group settings is less well understood.  I suspect it could contribute greatly to the creation of company cultures built upon respect for others among other benefits.  Has anyone out there seen or heard of good examples of this? 

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Mark Donovan December 19, 2013
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"The World Health Organization estimates stress costs U.S. companies at least $300 billion a year through absenteeism, turn-over and low productivity."  

Source: Harvard Yoga Scientists Find Proof of Meditation Benefit - November 22, 2013 article by Makiko Kitamura (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-11-22/harvard-yoga-scientists-find-proof-of-meditation-benefit.html)





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