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The Power of Ma in Creating Cognitive Space

by Jim Benson
August 14, 2019

The Power of Ma in Creating Cognitive Space

by Jim Benson
August 14, 2019 | Comments (7)

I was standing in a backroom in the Honolulu Museum of Art that was off-limits to the public. In this one room, protected from bugs, humidity, and light, was the world’s largest collection of Japanese woodblock prints. My childhood friend Shawn is an unlikely expert on these beautiful artifacts.

One of the things I geek out on is watching other geeks geek out on what they geek out about. I love to listen to people talk about what they really love and Shawn did not fail to deliver. Through him we met the people, the business models, the supply chains, the evolving use cases, the ink choices, the artists, the engravers, the labor disputes, the burnout, and so on, of an industry centuries in the past. It was gorgeous detail.

In the middle of all of this, Shawn was discussing the notion of “Ma”; or, negative space (other definitions are a bit more expansive, suggesting that “Ma” represents a “pause in time, an interval or emptiness in space”). There would be great detail in the mountains, even great (like nearly impossibly great) detail in the snow, but equally important was the spaces in between. Where the artist chose to engage your eye, your imagination, your reminiscence, and where the artist gave your eye a rest. Space to think. Space to dwell. Space to understand. Space to simply be.

Even if we think that value is delivered by direct action, in the case of the snow, snowflakes have no definition without space between them and other snowflakes. Consider that each snowflake, or in this case each limb of the tree, only exists in space by having separation from other snowflakes or limbs. The definition of something is only made when we have the cognitive space to recognize it and think about it.

While we often focus on waste reduction and see 5S as a mechanism for waste reduction, it is actually a dedicated effort to introduce negative space into a production environment. Clean and less chaotic environments tend to be safer and calmer. We introduce Ma into the inhumane world of the assembly line. We can focus on the value because we are no longer confronted by clutter.

But life gets a little more complicated when we are in the office, doesn’t it?

Strangely, but not surprisingly, Lean thinking in the office has historically jumped to the conclusion that negative space is created by having clean desks or no family photos or nothing stuck to the walls. It’s easy to assume that all negative space is physical.

One of the most productive and organized guys I’ve worked with is named Tom. Tom’s New York office looks like someone stole his filing cabinets but left the files behind. Little towers of files covering every horizontal surface. But Tom gets everything done. Every conversation we have in his office, at some point, has him say, “Here, lookit this.” He’ll rummage around for a bit, but only a bit, and magically produce something relevant.

So Tom doesn’t need to “clean” his desk.

Around the corner from him Charlie’s office very quickly lets you meet every member of his family and get a good idea of who he is. It’s usually pretty neat, but it’s a pretty neat photo album, book rack, and Personal Kanban.

Counterintuitively, for both Tom and Charlie, their “clutter” is their Ma.

Negative space in a woodblock or in interior decorating or on the shop floor shows up as a visible physical distance between things. But in knowledge work, Ma may well be any element or space that allows our brains to operate a little more smoothly. Cognitive negative space. Things that allow us to take a break and think. Things that make us worry less.

Tom’s files give him the reassurance that whatever he needs is there when he needs it. It looks like chaos to us, but it’s smooth sailing for him. Charlie’s family is central to him and he’s at work a lot, staying connected to them lets him focus on what’s important at work while being connected to what important outside the office. For me, my office is divided into different work areas.  My desk oscillates between clutter and cleanliness, but the reading corner is always tidy.

If you “straightened” Tom’s files or “sorted” Charlie’s photos, their productivity would not rise.  But their feeling of humanity, of professionalism, and of individuality would decrease. And in knowledge work, these are the elements of quality work and effective people.

When we lead with respect for people, we need to truly understand that people work in different ways. Variation in style is crucial in knowledge work. In the office, negative space isn’t just physical, it is mental, it is temporal, it’s emotional. It is personally defined.

Beneficial cognitive gaps for knowledge workers may not be space, they may be triggers. These triggers cause action and, more importantly, reflection. They remind the knowledge worker of contexts outside the office or the project. They fill in the gaps of innovation, creativity, and comfort.

These gaps might be time. Breaks in the day where the brain can absorb what has happened, write new experiences to long-term memory, and have epiphanies. Gaps that allow pause to reflect, realize, and redirect.

So we must ask:

Do we have beneficial gaps to rest?

Do we have beneficial gaps to think?

Do we have beneficial gaps to be human?

In this case the word "beneficial" is intentional. Beneficial constraints are what create systems. In Lean we seek to find harmful constraints and exploit beneficial ones. Production time / cost being the most obvious two.

In this case, a beneficial constraint can be expressed as a gap in perceived "productive time" that actually enables the ability to produce in a quality way.  Without them we lose valuable cognitive processing time.

These gaps are not necessarily big spaces or large amounts of time, their benefits can literally last as long as an idle glance past a picture of your daughter, and their value is almost always ignored. What might seem like “clutter” to the strict 5S’er is, in a non-intuitive way, beneficial.

When we build systems for humans to work, we must include triggers and time. Time to learn, time to have real respect for people, and time to figure out what unexpected things might actually be physical manifestations of negative space.

I ask of you: do not fixate on shaving seconds from processes; do not dwell in the world of pathological waste reduction. Live, seriously live, in a world that gives professionals the liberty to define their own Ma.

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Rob August 14, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Thanks Jim, Really enjoyed this post. Have long held the view that Lean is based on learned principles contributed over generations. Some principles are more technical (FLOW & Pull Value) other more humanistic (Lead with humility, Respect every individual) but each one is essential lessons learned or wisdom from the past. The driver behind these principles being the need to create effective systems of cooperation for growth (economic & personnel). Structure & systems must be in place to put the principles in practice creating predictable behavior & trust. Often I find organizations miss the intended purpose of a system like 5S and force excessively rigid practices. They actually lose the employee cooperation by eroding respect & trust and conclude that Lean doesn't work. Believe that the concepts you highlighted go a long way in shifting perspective on the way we work.

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Jim Benson August 14, 2019

Thanks Rob. As Lean has evolved, I'm seeing a deeper adherence of practice through understanding. That means, even in some rough environments, I'm seeing Respect for People taking a center stage in some very practical ways. The rigid boot-camp style Lean rollouts have been shown to lack sustainability (therefore they themselves aren't 5s).  So, while I'm happy about your kind words at the end of your comment, I'm also seeing this as a shift that is occuring naturally.  I still have faith. :-)

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John Shook August 14, 2019
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Fascinating, Jim. Some not totally random but perhaps not totally on point thoughts that arise from your connecting Hiroshige with “ma” with lean thinking...

I’ve long considered that all work (if that’s an overstatement, at least almost all work) has a rhythm. As in music, rhythm is created as much by the spaces between sounds as it is by the sounds themselves. The rhythm of work on an assembly line is one thing, and well-designed work on an assembly line consists of thoughtfully and humanistically considered rhythm built into it. Knowledge work is, seems to me, more challenging in this regard, but the principle remains the same. For example, “triggers” as you call them, to take the worker elsewhere, even for a moment, perhaps openning the door to a new insight, sparking a new connection between work matters that seemed in conflict only moments ago. I think you’re right, the various lean tools we use have these less visible but powerful benefits that contribute to a more productive work space: 5S, visual boards and the huddles around them perhaps structured around a kata, the pitch of information delivery, a regular cadence of meetings to support PDCA cycles both short and long. The A3 process, too, as much as anything is a means of stopping the action, to slow down and take a new look at a vexing situation. It can be hard to think clearly in a swirl. Recalling Kahneman’s thinking fast and slow - there are times we benefit from thinking fast and there are times we need to slow down. It’s helpful to have switching mechanisms or triggers - and lean practice has them in spades - to shift gears. 
Anyway, thanks for the new rationale for my messy desk. 


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Jim Benson August 14, 2019
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Hey John.

That's a big part of it ... but might surface in a post later in the series.  When Toni and I were writing Personal Kanban, we used Google Docs and literally would be writing in the same paragraph at the same time.

Sometimes this was syncopated, sometimes this was free style, sometimes this was jamming, sometimes this was dissonant and jarring.  But the rhythm of the work coincided with with comfort of the "musicians" both with each other and with the subject (Constancy of purpose). 

That allowed us both to take lead at different times, to solo, to fall back into simple rhythms while the other explored new territories.

In many instances, we found the apocryphal story from Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis during the Bitches' Brew Sessions where Herbie played something wrong and stopped, angry with himself, but to Miles is was all music. He took Herbie's "mistake" and played variations on it as the others followed along.

Work flows on a river of information and action. It's an awesome thing to navigate.

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John Shook August 16, 2019

Miles and Herbie - there’s an aspiration (not to mention inspiration) for you. For rock solid rhythm with a whole lot going on around it, check out this GoT theme song jam with Scott Ian holding the fort for everyone from Tom Morello to Brad Paisley - yikes:  


Warning: not for everyone.

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Joe Ely August 19, 2019
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Building on Jim's concept of rhythms contributing to "ma"...a very different example.

Outside my manufacturing role, I umpire baseball.  My officiating took a huge step forward years ago when I observed the "rhythms" of baseball.   Each pitch, each batter, each inning, each game, each season; each has it's own rhythm, the individual cycles sometimes reinforcing, sometimes in tension. 

And, when something felt "out of sync" to me in a game, inevitably I'd ovserve one of the rhythms was out of whack...a pitcher taking too little or too much time between pitches; a coach over-instructing and distracting players; a season distracted by controversy.

In the moment, in the top of the 3rd with one out, for example, I often did a mental inventory of where I was in those nested rhythms.  And my job, being in charge of the game, was to keep them in sync.  The better I did that, the better the game went. 

Why do the rhythms matter?  Each provides space, ma.  The batter collects his thoughts after taking strike 2.  The team re-groups coming in from the field between innings.   The coach finds ways to instruct between games. 

Business, families, personal life...all have rhythms which allow ma.   To be aware of this and cooperate with it enhances each facet. 

Even when the game goes extra innings.

Great post, Jim and great comment John. 

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John Voris August 27, 2019

Looking at snowflake

separate from the others

now is different

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