I have an A5 sheet of paper that I keep in my breast pocket. It reminds me what to do when my executive function fails.
Begats After work today, I called my grandfather. I call him Pop. He’s 83. We talked about the Korean War, working life, my Dad’s health problems, and, briefly, death.
Death A close friend calls me about death and whatnot. I bite my tongue, literally, talking about the pros and cons of overdosing, while eating a hamburger. It hurts but I’m drunk, and tongue and teeth are really just asking for it, so close together.
Steely Dan You do his nine to five
Drag yourself home half alive
And there on the screen
A man with a dream.
Pragmatism Naturally, I feel shame for producing some affectation regarding habits and rituals. And so on. The afterlife is abstract, along with a soul, god, so on. And so we (wouldn’t we?) want to find out how important this life is. If what others regarded as being somehow higher is abstract, wouldn’t we want to find out what those numinous feelings are for? Anyway, you can’t argue intelligently with any of that. Some posture or another.
Continuous Improvement I am coaching. Experimenting, documenting those experiments. Teaching, sending surveys, getting feedback, making adjustments. Past, present, future. As you do. Improving habits.
Socrates’s dialogue with Ion, who is, not skilled, but divine. A general instructs others. It’s maybe not as easy a skill to judge as that of the charioteer? Is it easy to assess the efficacy of a doctor?
What is the name—John Ashbery. Quick question. Doesn’t he remind you of—not the philosopher—Francis Bacon? What is it about him?
You imagine Stephen strolling along a Dublin street—epiphany!
You read and you channel, then. That’s what he was saying. It’s a spirit, an intoxication. You act in accord with another, who acts in accord with another. Massimo Pigliucci asks Epictetus a question.
You wash a counter according to the principles: multiple passes with soap in the wash phase; multiple passes without soap in the rinse phase; wringing the sponge each pass of the rinse phase. You are sure any grime, anything tacky, is completely removed, so that it won’t break loose and smear. You employ patience. Yet it doesn’t matter. Try to walk away, it will bring you back. The light catches it. Or your mind holds it as a question and has you return to inspect just once more, to find it.
What color is your counter? Do you vary the pressure that you apply? Do you experiment with vinegar? Do you use timeblocks to contain your concern? Do you remember the craze of those green faux-marble counters in the nineties?
Islands were popular in the nineties. Have you ever tried to wash a countertop that extended significantly beyond its base? It flexes. You wonder how much. How many times before it breaks? If something can break eventually, does it break a little bit all the times it flexes before that? Or is there some threshold pressure that must be met, and below that it can warp forever?
Walking past a stack of firewood, it occurs to you that if it ever falls, it is either in the process now, or will its stillness will have been disrupted.
I’ve gone on a lot of tangents on this blog, looking for similarities between the sacred and the secular. In my mind, I’ve drawn two columns.
Analogous Secular Practice
Imagining the personality of God
Imagining what is above and greater than the self
Careful reading of any text that is written with care for the benefit of the reader
Asking God for guidance
Asking the unconscious mind for guidance
Picturing heaven after death
Picturing continuous improvement
Picturing hell after death
Picturing hell before death
The compelling analog for this week is: anxiety = conscience.
This week I’ve been engaged in this experiment: what if I listen more closely to my “anxiety”, and what if I treat it as if it were my conscience? In other words, it is always information, or at least data, and my job is to interpret it.
Clearly we all do this. It’s how we survive. But, at some point, based on unconscious assumptions and cultural norms, we think we’re feeling too much. We think it’s unreasonable, a distraction. But are you sure? This week, I’ve been acting under the assumption that if it feels uncomfortable, it’s just my failure to interpret it and act on it adequately
I picture a Quaker sometimes when I think this way, and I know from experience to note that picture and add to it, to make more visual correlations so that when that picture fades and loses its power, as it inevitably does, my connection with the thought doesn’t follow.
Of course, acting as if anxiety is OK and deliberately letting go of aversion to it is counterintuitive in part because I assume that the aversion itself is part of how the brain makes the mind understand. If anxiety isn’t bad, will I be inadequately motivated to act in ways that minimize it? Reading Anders Ericsson’s book Peak brings this concern to the forefront. The discomfort of not being able to perform a specific task in a skillset that we are deliberately practicing is part of the process by which our brain rewires itself so that we can perform the task. But if we become too comfortable with this discomfort, does that interrupt the process? In Buddhism we are often, it seems, encouraged to just accept and sit with the discomfort. As I’ve talked about a lot, this troubles me for a few reasons. This is one. And that discomfort, I can describe this way: how to deal with anxiety has to be a central aim to religion. If a religious practice doesn’t alleviate anxiety, then who will practice it? And, as Viktor Frankl observes, a very effective way of making suffering tolerable is to put it in the context of a meaningful story. The Nietzschean How/Why quote.
So, is conscience just more meaningful a concept than anxiety? Isn’t saying you’re anxious an easier out than saying your conscience is troubling you?
¹A friend observes that I should put meditation as the counterpart here. Which is interesting. In Zen meditation a question is often employed. But isn’t it a koan? A koan is paradoxical. It shows you the inadequacy of your reasoning. (Does that remind you of something? The paradox of the following the law: the wages of sin are death, and yet. The epiphany of vicarious atonement.) Also, recall the three pillars, great faith, great doubt, great determination. In the doubt, there is boundless inquiry. Or something.
But I am thinking more of prayer as a dialogue between the self and the conscience. This is also the dialogue of a story.
What else, what else. In the Buddhist practice, you are setting up a story, clearly. The story of you and all the beings reaching enlightenment. So these are the two I keep coming back to. “Dropping the story” and controlling the story. But sometimes it strikes me that when we ask our conscience a question, the listening we do isn’t auditory. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? But for years I was literally listening.
This essay expands on the ideas introduced in its predecessor.
Per Rother, a Target Condition is a combination of a “desired outcome” and the “desired operating attributes that achieve that outcome.” “A Target Condition includes both of these elements and is therefore more than just an outcome goal.”
The Learner moves from their Current Condition (their current outcomes, and their current operating attributes) to the Target Condition by identifying and overcoming Obstacles, using PDCA cycles.
You problem-solve special cause variation. You do process improvement on common cause variation. If you are simply trying to achieve an outcome one time, then all you are worried about are problems. A door is closed, you open it. The door is locked, you bust it down. The door is made of steel, you get some explosives. Common cause and special cause variation only pertain to iterative processes. The concept of unwanted variation is meaningless if you aren’t aiming for consistent outputs over time.
For example: these essays—and the sentences in them—suffer from common cause variation. The characteristics of my process cause the variation in quality. I can always go back and revise—pick over each infelicity, each fuzzy idea and inaccuracy, and improve them, but that revision process would have its own characteristics and capability.
Maybe some improvement would result from the additional time spent identifying and removing defects. Another way of thinking of this is, my inputs to the process of revision would be further developed than the inputs to my process of drafting the document—the vague impressions floating around in my head.
It can be challenging to see how many of our desired outcomes are the results of processes. But isn’t thought a process?
I had been mistakenly confusing the concept of Obstacles over the past few weeks. I had been thinking that one could have Obstacles to desired outcomes, and to well-formed plans. But after going back to the Practice Guide, I realized that the definition of an Obstacle is precise. It is what keeps you from achieving a Target Condition, and a Target Condition must be a combination of desired outcomes and process characteristics. Why set Target Conditions?
One reason is to reduce common cause variation. Why do you want to reduce common cause variation? Because as you reduce common cause variation—when you raise the lower limit of your variation—you are able to increase the upper limit. But there is another reason. You can reduce your variation to six sigma without developing innovation for the customer. You can produce undesirable products of the highest consistency. Remember that you iterate through realized Target Conditions to a Challenge. A Challenge is just a description of your vision at a defined point in time. But your vision is based on what you actually want. What is actually valuable. What is actually better than reality right now. In order to move towards that, you have to have breakthroughs and discoveries, to develop in unforeseeable ways. Reducing common cause variation is a necessary component of that. If you sometimes get out of bed and sometimes don’t, you’re going to have a hard time. Even the most creative of professions require consistency. If you look into the processes of Chopin and Feynman, you won’t see them lounging about waiting for epiphanies.
When I started writing this essay, I thought I was going to explain a three-tiered model of Obstacles.
Obstacles on just desired outcomes,
Obstacles on drafting plans that can bear scrutiny, and Obstacles to implementing those plans,
and true Obstacles to achieving Target Conditions.
But, as dealt with the problems as I found them, sentence by sentence, and by going back to the source material, I realized my thoughts had gone astray. Thank god for problems.
This week, I had two of the critical conversations in the kata deployment. These were go and see experiments because my conversations were only elicitations of the impressions of my interlocutors. I wasn’t trying to see what would happen if I introduced a conversation into the process of management. I wasn’t trying to change their minds, but see how the current state of their minds reacted.
I showed the simple block diagram. It looks something like this:
Choose the decisions that will take the longest to answer (leave the easier ones for later).
Ideas of plans
Draft a clear attempt at an answer, preferably a diagram with explanatory notes.
Distribute it to the team members. Ask them to scrutinize it and ask questions.
Impressions of obstacles
Answer all of the questions that you can.
Impressions of questions
For the questions that you can’t answer clearly, do research, or experiments, and find the answers.
Repeat these steps until the document can bear the scrutiny of a core set of team members. It’s not that everyone has to agree. It’s that the answers to questions must be defensible. The kata coach should be in these conversations, and look for indications that the interlocutors are making arguments and claims outside of their knowledge threshold. She should document these arguments and claims as obstacles and discuss them with the learner after the meeting.
They should do more experiments (PDCAs) on these arguments and claims.
Don’t even try having difficult technical conversations without a drawing or technical document in front of the members.
Of course this process isn’t guaranteed to produce consensus, but lack of consensus isn’t what been plaguing us. It’s a maelstrom of vagueness. Of arguing past one another. Of groundhog day debates. Klinkenborg’s diagnosis comes to mind: people want so badly do be done, that they don’t focus properly on doing. They want the decision made. They “don’t want to argue.” They commit to an idea for a day, then the next throw their hands up, claiming indifference.
I predicted tepid assent; instead, the idea received enthusiastic support. Why? What did I learn?
In a coaching cyclewith my boss, he asked me, and we came to a different conclusion together than I had before the cycle. My conclusion had been something like bafflement. Sometimes people are excited by the same ideas that I am, sometimes they aren’t. Who knows why. His impression was clearer and probably more accurate.
The question I’m trying to answer is not how to apply Lean principles to the work we’re doing (a question that’s interested me for years). The question I’m asking is, how can we overcome the most daunting obstacle before us? Also, at present, the team members’ descriptions of the obstacle are remarkably convergent.
My thinking, and consequently my presentation, emphasized how our problem could be addressed, instead of how my preferred technique could address our problems.
Is this learning, precisely? It seems more like the application of some general principles. Maybe it’s more like practice. I didn’t learn the principle. But maybe I’ve developed some experience in applying it.
I think what I’m seeing is that we (meaning, people in general) want to see precisely how a technique can help us solve our most pressing problem, not hear how, in principle, a methodology can justifiably be applied to a family of problems. Because the core team has been experiencing real grief, sitting in the same long meetings, and I have been trying specifically to reducing this suffering, the resulting ideas were more interesting to my teammates. As Rother would say, I’m focusing on the one obstacle that we need to solve now. Not picking out the problems that I think I know how to solve.
Solomon might have asked himself, <<Am I still here?>> and, being the wisest judge, he would answer. So Solomon lived¹. Wouldn’t he have?
Prophets made predictions, and after they were realized, were called prophets. Is that what happened? Is Chödrön saying, <<If you do this, that will happen?>> Is she proposing a sort of amorphous covenant?
I notice that a Learner has a habit of saying <<I told you so>> to coworkers. This is so interesting. To imagine this motivation for a minute. To see the world as someone who is continuously yearning to prove, not a particular skill, but her foresight in general. Her message, as I hear it, is, <<Look, I was right, and I will continue to be right, so follow my advice.>>
I don’t know how to discourage her for from continuing down this path, because I can’t say, precisely, where it leads, but it seems misguided to call others’ attention to your predictions instead of your reasons—outcomes instead of means—because then all they have to do is watch you and look for instances of your being wrong? I’m sure I’ve seen at least one marriage that was made up of this: each struggling for decades to prove to the other that they themselves were the more prophetic, that theirs was the truer covenant. Like gambling addicts, they want, finally, to come out on top in the game of predicting the future.
So Solomon would conjure himself into existence³. How?
Solomon gave into idolatry, and Rabbi Akiva Tatz explains why prophets no longer exist. It is as a result of the Sanhedrin having excised that which leads to idolatry from the human soul. Why did they do it? Because the impulse toward idolatry “so tormented and stressed” even the most pious, that the Sanhedrin “decided to do something active about it.” Tatz says that, “It was, in fact, the most powerful temptation that there was.” People were losing their struggle against it. They couldn’t stop themselves from bowing down to idols. Why? Tatz says that it was their desire to connect with the transcendent, the divine, and I’m sure he’s right. But what else? And why that? Was it only the search for meaning? Is the mundane so meaningless? Well, we know, from the direct and clear account from Epicurus and others, that it wasn’t when it was moderately pleasurable. Epicurus was after Malachi (the last prophet), but was he living in such a different reality? When one had enough food and drink and friendship, when one had a bit of safety and a bit of beauty, couldn’t they enjoy life? So was the impulse to connect with the divine purely spiritual, or was it also practical? Or in other words, was the impulse as overwhelming when one wasn’t in the sort turmoil that was brought on by more mundane causes? Wasn’t this connection with god thought to be the independent variable, the imagined lever of control over nature and the outcomes of battles? Wasn’t a lot of it rain dances?
Maybe, but not all of it. Why? Because of foresight. In any torrent, one can imagine a drought, and their immortal soul. The impulse to petition a god wasn’t purely practical, because we didn’t evolve to perceive the actual valence of phenomena in relation to the fate of our genes. We don’t, most of us, obsessively seek the optimal caloric intake; we seek tasty food. We don’t want more than anything to have as many kids as possible, and then grandkids. And, we do least of all when we have the Epicurean fruits around us. We evolved by the correlation of impulses to survival and reproduction. This is Darwin’s often confused fitness. And the fittest, in the long run, are the most adaptable, the most versatile. (The core principles of Lean, have the effect of exposing to the operators and engineers the fitness of the operation, of exposing the independent variables.)
“The book raises questions, ” says Roth, “and you answer it. Sentence by sentence, really. Phrase by phrase. Then chapter by chapter, etc. Then draft by draft. And when you’ve answered all the questions, the book is done.”
The Sanhedrin performed an excision on the source of the impulse to bow down before idols, removing it from the human soul, but along with the temptation went the insatiable desire to connect with god, and with that went the talent of prophecy.
Tatz: “What is the drive to idolatry? Isn’t it to go beyond the self and to worship that which is beyond? The faculty that wants to do that is the same faculty that worships Hashem. Only it’s misdirected. But it’s the same organ…. There is a desire to transcend and melt into that which is greater…. As soon as they killed the drive to idolatry, do you know what died with it? Prophecy. What is prophecy? The ability to communicate directly with the transcendent reality². And if you take the organ out of the mind that does that, you lose the drive to idolatry, but you lose prophecy, too.”
Later he says, when describing a subsequent excision, this time on the drive to immoral sensuality, “…again, if you’re thinking, you should ask me a question.”
¹This is a very different maneuver from Descartes’s, by the way. And for a very entertaining history of the interactions of Hobbes and Descartes, read George Hakari’s Soul Machine.
²His voice enters into song at this point in his lecture, and at others.
³For a beautiful example of a character writing herself into existence, read Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel Lavinia.
Two weeks. Every day one or more intense conversations. In each of them, gesturing to myself a reminder to practice.
What’s the objective of this conversation? How will I judge myself at the end of it? What standards will I use? How do my objectives in this conversation align with my vision? What will I ask myself after I walk away from this conversation? How will I answer? How will I account for my behavior?
What is my plan to get from here to there?
Be present. Do it. Breathe slowly through your nose. Actively listen. Visualize what they are saying. Do you understand what they are saying? Are you sure?
What happened? How did that go? What do I need to adjust?
Why such focus on conversations? Because this is how we inch forward. Each one, learning a little more. Refining an idea a little more. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. No persuasion. Only trying to articulate as clearly as possible, to understand as completely as possible. I am a member of an organism.
It seems that massive failures occur one conversation at a time. One casual conversation after another. Why are things going so poorly? I don’t know. Let’s have a casual conversation about it. It’s still happening. Hum.
So, I have burned a lot of hours in these conversations. I have proposed to explain the methods by which to solve our problems. Explained step by step. Laid out the next steps. Set the calendar dates. Updated the “Current State” and the “Next Task” in my spreadsheet. 5 items with a priority of 100. (Importance 10; Urgency 10. Multiply.) 5 is my limit.
Task = Objective + Method
What are the transformations that must occur?
Unclear or missing plans for accomplishing our objectives on schedule → Obstacles → Questions → Experiments → Answers → Steps of plans → Complete, clear and accurate plans detailing the steps by which we will accomplish our objectives on schedule → implement and monitor the independent variables against the standards → daily failures to meet standards → obstacles → questions → experiments → answers → revised steps….and if we show our plan to the judges and they scrutinize it and ask the most difficult questions, and the plan bears scrutiny, then we should try it and use careful sensors and monitor the correlations.
This has been my sermon. I have endeavored to die to the self and live for this method.
We can see that Lean is a cultural application of the scientific method to manufacturing processes, and that communities for decades have have struggled heroically to apply Lean concepts to office processes. How has that worked out? So let’s just go back. How do we develop scientific behavior? That’s Rother’s question. That’s the question.
There was a conversation, with the one I love the most, that went poorly. Of course. Each day subsequent to it, for five days, we had conversations about it, each one difficult but rewarding. On the fifth day, we talked about the questions that I had asked her in the first conversation. They made her uncomfortable.
When Brit and I were discussing, I asked her some questions, and they made her uncomfortable. That was Thursday. This discomfort came up again each day afterwards, over the Christmas weekend. On Tuesday, as I was preparing to leave OKC after the four-day weekend, and go back to Tulsa, we talked about that conversation.
I proposed that next time I raise a question that makes her uncomfortable, she mention that, and I will recall this conversation with her, and we will discuss what she sees as the implications of the question, and we can work together to raise questions that she finds more interesting and helpful. She said that she felt that if we could do that, then we’d never argue again. I said, OK, well, I have a method for making it very likely that we do that, and I told her about how I just add the item to my checklist, and then I will write about it each day, in this way:
I will picture myself in a conversation with her in which I ask her an uncomfortable question and she tells me as much. I respond by thanking her for voicing her discomfort. Then we will discuss the question.
Because I will have played this visualization in my head seven times, I will already have a formative habit. So that’s what I’m doing now. Writing this summary and picturing this discussion about questions makes me very likely to behave more reasonably next time I consider asking someone a question.
What do I mean by more reasonably? I mean, rather than simply thinking, “I have anxiety, and I can convert it into a question, and the question is relevant to the topic at hand, so I will ask it,” I can think, “What is my intention in this conversation? And what have I taken on as my responsibility? And how can I use questions to help fulfill my responsibility as an interlocutor?”
The terms reasonable and responsible are closely related. Why? Reasonable means “in accordance with reason” (Shorter OED, 5th). It means, one can use reason to explain one’s behavior. One’s behavior can be explained with reasons. It implies that those reasons will be adequate to an inquisitor—a judge, say. Responsible means “answerable, accountable” and also “capable of fulfilling an obligation or trust; reliable, trustworthy.” In other words, if one asks a responsible person why they performed in some way, they will be able to respond, to give an answer—a reason.
So to behave more responsibly is to behave in such a way that one’s answer to the question, “Why did you behave in that way,” is capable of withstanding greater scrutiny. If a judge asks additional questions, and interrogates the soundness of the arguments given, one who behaves as responsibly as possible will be able to give the best reasons possible.
Of course, there is being responsible and there is being skillful. One does not simply make decisions in a given conversation, but one behaves within the confines of one’s skill. So we also have to develop our skill, so that if the judge asks, “Well, why weren’t you able to perform more nimbly in this conversation,” one can reply, “I developed my skill by mentally practicing each day for seven days.”
O my judges—for you I may truly call judges—I should like to tell you of a wonderful circumstance. Hitherto the familiar oracle within me has constantly been in the habit of opposing me even about trifles, if I was going to make a slip or error about anything; and now as you see there has come upon me that which may be thought, and is generally believed to be, the last and worst evil. But the oracle made no sign of opposition, either as I was leaving my house and going out in the morning, or when I was going up into this court, or while I was speaking, at anything which I was going to say; and yet I have been stopped in the middle of a speech, but now in nothing I either said or did touching this matter has the oracle opposed me. What do I take to be the explanation of this? I will tell you. I regard this as a proof that what has happened to me is good, and that those of us who think that death is an evil are in error. This is a great proof to me of what I am saying, for the customary sign would surely have opposed me had I been going to evil and not to good.
—Socrates (via Plato, in Apology)
Is my tone too serious? Am I taking myself too seriously? Is it a detriment? That’s a good question. I look for symptoms. But my tone isn’t in reference to myself but the practice, to the rules I have adopted for myself.
Whatever rules you have adopted for yourself, abide by them as laws, and as if you would be impious to transgress them; and do not regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is no concern of yours. How long, then, will you delay to demand of yourself the noblest improvements, and in no instance to transgress the judgments of reason?
—Epictetus, The Handbook
And I am under the influence of sermons on how to live seriously.
If they are right to be serious about their practice—and aren’t they?—am I wrong to be serious in mine?
We know that physical cues facilitate habit formation. We know that postures can be a physical cue. In my recent post Rules, I describe hand positions I was experimenting with to remind myself to think about standards and run experiments. In the same post I talk about a turn from using PDCA terminology to use the terminology of experimentation. A question for a few months had a minor fruition for me driving from Tulsa to OKC yesterday. The two sets of finger motions (fourth to first, first to fourth) are unnecessary. What is necessary is that we reflect on what standards may apply, given our objective, and experimentation. Experimentation, fundamentally, has three phases: before, during, and after.
Plan an experiment (think about the future)
Run the experiment (think about the present, or the immediate future, the very next instant, which for our purposes is defined as the present)
Reflect on the results (think about the past, and the artifacts it created, including data we collected during the experiment)
Additional phases break those three out: phases of preparation before the experiment, phases during experimentation, aspects of experimentation (including the test itself, and collecting data during the test), and all of the ways we can analyze and evaluate data after the test, propose adjustments, propose new standards based on the results, and so on.
So that leaves us with
Thumb to index finger: think about standards
Thumb to second finger: think about the future
Thumb to third finger: think about the present
Thumb to the fourth finger: think about the past.
Near the end of this lecture, Rabbi Michael Skobac talks about the use of posture in spiritual practice. “Nothing can’t be raised up into a meaningful spiritual experience.”