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?