Why no posts?

Why did my production to this blog reduce so significantly over the past few months?

Reasons:
One reason is that I have several draft posts that I don’t know whether to put here. While I’ve put pieces here that are more personal than professional, I had a loose ratio of what was acceptable in mind, and lately my thoughts have been more personal, so if I post what’s on my mind, the ratio would be wrong. I told a few Lean associates about this blog, and I have a composite readership in mind. I worry about causing embarrassment or confusion.

I spent much of April writing a short story, and since then I have been trying to write an essay about the correlation of my compulsion to use my non-dominant with changes to my mental habits—specifically, the volume of questions I ask myself, and the attention I pay to the objects in my mind’s eye.

Writing about my intermittent yet almost life-long fixation on my non-dominant hand isn’t something I enjoy, and I don’t enjoy talking about it with others. It’s just a strange thing that’s always been there. So instead of writing about it directly, I’m composing a series of vignettes describing my habits in regard to my mind’s eye, trying to make more sense of these correlations.

In other words, not interesting at all. Not even to me, let alone to anyone else. The only reason I’m doing it is to try to be done with it.

And this is misleading, because intermittently, it is very interesting to me. I wonder intensely about it. Why this fixation? Do others have it? (Yes, they do. There are wikihows and online articles, and at least one youtube channel, devoted to developing dexterity in your non-dominant hand.) Why do they have it? I’ve been reading Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. which, conveniently, is about the tendencies of the two hemispheres of the neocortex. So that’s making it worse.

What else. I’ve been running. That’s good. I read Northrop Frye’s book Secular Scripture, which is fascinating if you’re interested in how popular stories reflect the collective psyche of the societies that cultivate them. I read a book by John Sarno called Healing Back Pain. I read it on June 20th. Today is July 1st. On the day that I began reading it, I was experiencing sharp pain in my lower back, and with it I was having the normal anxiety that comes with it. How can I accomplish my goals if I can’t sit at a desk? Why doesn’t anything I do work? I’ve had this intermittently since I was fifteen. Occasionally it’s debilitating. Since the 22nd, I can say that I haven’t experienced this pain. I’ve experienced  discomfort. But I think this is the normal discomfort that comes from sitting. I haven’t experienced sharp pain, and, maybe more importantly, my attitude towards the discomfort is changing. I am worrying less about it. So that’s interesting.

But, getting back to the problem. I need to decide what to do in regards to this site. Should I start another one for my more personal writing and for fiction? Which isn’t necessary. But right now, I’m in such an in-between place mentally, I don’t even know where to file things. I don’t know where things go. What even is my goal? 

At work I am working on process maps and value-stream maps for a process that we are developing on the fly. It’s such an undeveloped process that I’ve decided to do it several times myself, hands on, in order to be able to train the Analysts on it. That is maybe the lesson I’ve learned over the past couple of weeks. It’s the 5th of Leah Guren’s 10 golden rules.  (Why she doesn’t just call them commandments, I don’t know. She’s Israeli, so maybe it’s too sacrilegious?) Anyway, the rule is: Don’t write blind. It’s very tempting when people are asking me to develop processes on paper to see it as my job as to do just that. But it’s very difficult to describe a good process that I haven’t performed. It might be adequate. People might agree with it. But, when I actually do the process, and go back and read my own workflow or instructions or process map, I find deficiencies that I just couldn’t see before. 

I knew this. So my strategy was to ask the Analysts themselves to take my instructions, and try to use them, and to revise them in a way that makes more sense to them. I set up standards for the process in One Note and ensured everyone had access to the notebook. Clearly the next step (when no one makes corrections to the document) is to let the process run, and produce defects, or excessive cycle times, and do a quick cause analysis on the defect or delay, and find the inadequate process standard to be to blame, and work with them to fix it. That sounds good, right? But everything is moving so fast. There are so many problems. 

I’ve been staying late working on developing the process metrics so I can get a  good Target Condition. I’m doing this without a Coach, which makes it tricky. Friday I had a good start at a value-stream map with a few weeks worth of data on % C&A and cycle times. Now to gather that data on the upstream processes.

A brief problem analysis: the importance of knowing roles

Problem:
I was frequently feeling a distracting level of frustration when a contract Business Analyst (BA), whom I have been working with for a few months, would ask me questions or want to discuss problems or next steps on the project we are working on. I did not like my tone of voice in replying to him, and I could not determine what was causing me to experience this level of frustration. While it is normal for me to initially experience frustration when talking with someone, I usually figure out the cause and make necessary adjustments for it. I eventually was able to that in this case, also, but it took awhile. 

This BA has been working in the cubicle adjacent to mine for several months. Since there is significant overlap in the work that he and I do, we have been working together a lot.

He is a self-described extravert, and tends to think out loud, but that, to my mind, wouldn’t account for the level of frustration I was experiencing in talking with him.

Attempted methods of resolution:
First, I took a walk with him and explained  my problem: something about our interactions was causing me trouble, and I wasn’t able to identify it. We agreed to work together to improve the effectiveness and ease of our interactions.

My first countermeasure was to ask him, when he would start describing a problem to me, whether he wanted assistance or whether the conversation was just an FYI. This hardly helped because usually he wanted assistance. 

Then I attempted to clarify early in each conversation what kind of assistance he wanted. Did he want me to serve as a sounding board as he talked a problem through? Did he want my advice as a Process Improvement person? Or did he want me to give him some direction as a more senior staff member?

These countermeasures had little effect.

Resolution:
The answer came when I recalled an interview with Noah Yuval Harari, in which he described the important role of titles and rank in human cooperation. We interact in a fictional world of corporations, departments, and job titles. We create stories and live inside of them. While sometimes these stories are overemphasized and the importance of human interaction is underemphasized, the problem can lean the other way. In this case, my problem was not so much with the person, but with an ambiguity in our roles.

Because he is playing an ambiguous role, gathering requirements, identifying problems, proposing solutions, setting meetings, and because he is a Subject Matter Expert (SME) in the abstract in many of the problems he is covering, and yet he  is not the designated SME in any of them, my mind was having a very hard time making sense of our conversations.   Additionally, I also play an often ambiguous role.  When he would come to me with problems, my mind was trying to classify his question in the context of its asker (him) and our relationship (per our roles). Normally, I know and assign roles implicitly. My mind simplifies most interactions by asking something like, 
“Is this my area of expertise or responsibility?” If yes, I take the person’s question and take responsibility for it. If not, I ask
B “Can I direct the person to someone else?” If it falls in an unclear domain, I ask,
C “Can I quickly help them analyze the problem so that they can move forward with experimental solutions?”

But in this case, my mind was answering “I don’t know” to A because of the significant overlap in our roles. It was answering  “No” to B because this person was already talking with the SMEs and was often in some degree of disagreement with them. Not being a SME, I did not know what to do in regards to this disagreement. Finally, it was was answering “No-o-o-o-o!” to C because of the frequency of these conversations.

Once I identified the problem (that he and I have ambiguous and shifting roles) then I was able to recognize that we may need to negotiate our functional or contingent roles more frequently so that I can decide the right role to play in any given conversation. For example, am I acting as senior personnel, providing insight not the workings of our department? Am I providing analytical assistance? Am I declining to assist due to time constraints? All of these options felt more available to me once I realized that they are normally unconsciously self-evident due to the relatively fixed nature of organizational rules.

Death, etc.

Torah
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. 

Dopamine

David Foster Wallace wincing between statements in discussion with Charlie Rose.  What was he wanting? For people to think he’s smart?

You call tell that by the look on my face?

Motivational salience. There’s a term that you can picture. Somewhere about as good as valence. You can see the electron in the outer shell. The valence of an object is dependent on your context. 

Some shattering fawn, etc. Or something similar that seems to know what you were getting at, without being there.

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 are acting with the intelligence of another, as they have transmitted it. It’s a start, anyway. Inferior to informed empiricism. But why did Santiago Ramón y  Cajal write Advice to a Young Investigator? It isn’t instructions for how to set up a lab experiment. Or is it? McGonigal says, “I think everyone needs to treat themselves like they are their own science experiment.”

Socrates, why do you think Ion treated the General differently from the Doctor, the Charioteer, the Sailor?

Smear

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.

Anxiety or Conscience?

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.

Religious Practice Analogous Secular Practice
Prayer Self-talk¹
Imagining the personality of God Imagining what is above and greater than the self
Reading scripture Careful reading of any text that is written with care for the benefit of the reader
Catechism FAQ
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.

Problems vs. Obstacles

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.

How is an Obstacle different from a Problem?

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mrother/Handbook/TC.pdf

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.

    1. Obstacles on just desired outcomes,
    2. Obstacles on drafting plans that can bear scrutiny, and Obstacles to implementing those plans,
    3. 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. 

Utility

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:

Inputs Process Outputs
Difficult decisions Choose the decisions that will take the longest to answer (leave the easier ones for later).  Improved questions
Ideas of plans Draft a clear attempt at an answer, preferably a diagram with explanatory notes. Answers
Preliminary drawings Distribute it to the team members. Ask them to scrutinize it and ask questions. Plans
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.

Do coaching cycles on these research cycles.

 
Known hindrances Update the document with those revised answers.  
Known questions

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 cycle with 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. 

Sententiousness

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.