The Problem of Genre

If a plague carried off the members of a society all at once, it is obvious that the group would be permanently done for. Yet the death of each of its constituent members is as certain as if an epidemic took them all at once. But the graded difference in age, the fact that some are born as some die, makes possible through transmission of ideas and practices the constant reweaving of the social fabric. Yet this renewal is not automatic. Unless pains are taken to see that genuine and thorough transmission takes place, the most civilized group will relapse into barbarism and then into savagery. In fact, the human young are so immature that if they were left to themselves without the guidance and succor of others, they could not acquire the rudimentary abilities necessary for physical existence. The young of human beings compare so poorly in original efficiency with the young of many of the lower animals, that even the powers needed for physical sustentation have to be acquired under tuition. How much more, then, is this the case with respect to all the technological, artistic, scientific, and moral achievements of humanity!

The Collected Works of John Dewey: The Complete Works 

To summarize all of the essays I’ve placed here up to this one: I’m confused by genres. Maybe it’s my tendency to think in spectra instead of delineated categories.  Law, scripture, and fiction all appear to exist on a gamut to me. Which is fine. But maybe I haven’t properly understood the distances. Where we can, for our purposes, draw boundaries.  

In Candor and PerversionRoger Shattuck’s eighth thesis asks us,

In order to affirm literature in its full humanist sense, let us eschew the freestanding text. Its indiscriminate use today provides evidence of deadening stylistic conformity. Rather, let us take advantage of the full range of terms like book, work, poem, play, novel, essay, passage, chapter, and the like. There is no need to modify serviceable expressions like “the text of” a work, and “sacred texts.” But let us refrain from endorsing, indirectly and inadvertently, the doctrine of textuality by chanting “text” in every other line of what we say and write.

Shattuck and Camille Paglia diagnose a problem with US culture to be a failure to do what Dewey describes above. I have a friend who studies eighteenth century English novels. He knows a lot about the development of epistolary novels. He can tell you about Clarissa. But sometimes talking with him about literature, I feel very sad. He has the expertise of the specialist, but he doesn’t seem to care about the cultural significance of myth and ritual.

Isn’t it interesting how a document can affect someone’s behavior? I think that is fundamentally what compels me, and I think it’s because of something missing in my development. I’m looking for some standards. So I look at law, at procedures, at scripture. I look periodically at fiction, but I usually find that wanting. I’m rereading Klinkenborg’s novel Timothy. I’m in love with it at the moment.

For Michael

Did you know that US Supreme Court Justices give frequent interviews? Interviewers (journalists, mostly) often introduce an interview by informing the audience that Justices are famously reluctant to grant interviews. Why? I don’t know. It suits them? Adds to the prestige? As if they were granted an audience with an angel. We do call them Justices. Isn’t that strange? Doesn’t it sound celestial? While the term Judge is evocative and has the same root, it isn’t lofty the way Justice is. Judge is also a verb; Justice is also a Goddess. And if you consider this verb in its full sense, it also is wonderfully descriptive, but Justice is a Platonic ideal. You can judge the quality of borscht. Justice looks only over society. But if we follow this line of thought too far it feels cheaper. Poultry versus chicken; beef versus cow. 

Antonin Scalia gave plenty of interviews. One of his favorite topics was what Justices do not do. They don’t philosophize. They don’t navel gaze or ask deep questions about life. They don’t have constituents to consult or represent.  They do read law, and they strive to apply a set of principles to the practices of interpretation and application. That practice would sound more sober if it were singular, but it applies to both -ions. 

Angel has come to have a strange flavor, hasn’t it? Robert Price and others argue that the existence of angels in Judaism and Christianity is, in some ways, a concession to polytheism. The old gods got let back in through angelology. To me, because of childhood memories, the word angels brings to mind kitsch

Scalia was vocal that Justices should not seek to apply the spirit of the law. One reason being that bills are not adopted by individuals but by congress, and the wording of the bills is usually crafted carefully so that they will be voted in favor of, not to voice the intentions of any one person or group. They are full of compromises, and those compromises exist in the sentences written. So to imagine what the authors hoped would be the ultimate outcome is to misunderstand the genre of statute. Maybe you can do that with poetry, but not law. There is no spirit to consult. Isn’t that lonely?

Scalia, religious, has the difference between the genres of scripture and statute firmly in mind, whereas Breyer and others treat the former more like the latter, a living document that does or should embody the saecular (thinking again of roots) spirit of the polis. 

Yet there are various ways in which Justices can glean the intent of the law. One must be familiar with related laws and decisions. A popular principles of jurisprudence is stare decisisstand by previous decisions. English Common Law was built by stare decisis, through Judges trying to make the outcomes of trials more rather than less predictable, by following rather than constantly deviating from existing judicial reasoning. And as for gathering insight into what the lawmakers intended, besides reading the text, Justices have few alternatives to looking at how the law was actually applied at the time that it was adopted. In other words, looking at what it appears to have meant to them at the time.  Scalia gives the example of cruel and unusual punishment. He argues that we know the legislators did not think they were abolishing capital punishment when they ratified the Bill of Rights because “when the cruel and unusual punishments clause was adopted, the death penalty was the only penalty for a felony.” It doesn’t, in other words, matter what a poll would show to be citizens’ take on the meaning of the phrase cruel and unusual today.

A friend once related to me that Justice Thomas had purportedly been consulting a dictionary. (This friend had ambitions to be a lawyer at the time. She thought it showed his lack qualification. To think that a dictionary would have any bearing on the interpretation of a statute!) Others have made this criticism. I think it’s a strange complaint.  Legislators (or the people actually doing the writing) are not writing in Python. The legislators who vote aren’t reading in Python. While there are terms of art, there aren’t only those. It’s not as if they had a glossary on hand when the yeas and nays were being counted. By ridiculing the use of a lexical, it’s as if we’re asking the legislators to read using only context clues. Sometimes you need to check and see that the meaning of a word is what you think it is, amirite? He hadn’t, by the way, been reading a current dictionary, but one contemporaneous with the adoption of the Constitution. It was the Commerce Clause in question. (Recall that the meaning of the phrase well-regulated has been notoriously problematic.) Our language is well-regulated in one sense but not in the other. 

But isn’t this a lovely phrase from Learned Hand (quote from the above-linked article):

“It is one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of the dictionary,” Judge Hand wrote in a 1945 decision, “but to remember that statutes always have some purpose or object to accomplish, whose sympathetic and imaginative discovery is the surest guide to their meaning.”

The mundane is transcendent

In this essay I don’t provide context for my assertions. That is provided in my essays on Peterson and Rother.

Spirituality is an intuitive substitute for the ambition to improve the world tangibly. It’s like depression. It keeps us from getting killed by going back and challenging the alpha too soon. We know, somehow, that we have to aim very high, to be roused, and to provide context to our mundane efforts. Mediocrity isn’t motivating.

The patterns that Peterson illustrates in Maps of Meaning are essentially the same, minus important details, as Rother’s Improvement Kata illustration. Peterson’s illustrate the structure of our most enduring religious myths. They are abstract and spiritual. Rother’s is the meta-pattern that guides the lower-level patterns. It is pragmatic, a training tool, a pragmatic ritual. It is an infinitely scalable pattern. It rouses and provides context.

From Maps of Meaning, one of many illustrations of the ascent from the unbearable present towards an ideal vision of the future, iteratively. 


Rother’s Improvement Kata, his model that makes explicit what he inferred to be happening organically at Toyota. 

These models are vital. We need them. 

“The world is too complex to be represented and acted upon without radical functional simplification.”

I’ve been working this pattern with five Learners for two weeks. Each session, I ask them the coaching questions. 

Spirituality aligns one’s actions with a transcendent objective. Heaven and hell are intuitive concepts. Yuval Noah Harari observes that spirituality is trailblazing. It is the elements of religion without the rules, without the precedent. It’s exploratory.

Harari defines religion this way:

Religion is anything that confers superhuman legitimacy on human social structures. It legitimises human norms and values by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.

In spirituality, you are working without the norms, in some way. Obviously, you are operating inside some set of norms, insofar as you must or are inclined to.

Persisting in spirituality (exploring) without striving to orient to both a zenith and a nadir primes the mind for hedonism and ennui or worse. Attaining a goal for which you have strived is depressing unless that goal is only a milestone.

If survival isn’t a challenge, then we can be hedonistic. If we’ve learned better than that, we can be spiritual or religious. If we’re disillusioned, we can revert back to some variety of hedonism. If we continue beyond our disillusionment, we can set unattainable mundane direction, and challenges that force us to change our minds.

The intuitive understanding is important and has to come first. Steps don’t get skipped only delayed. But to stop at the step of spirituality without developing a vision and a plan to move towards the ideal in this life is a to misunderstand the path. We encourage each step along the path so that we can continue making steps. 

So it’s tricky. We have to be empirical and objective and follow nature on our path. Our path must be terrestrial. But it must lead to heaven, which also must be terrestrial. And if we cause violence, we’ve set our fate. We’ve ruined everything.

Complacency is deceptive. It seems bad but is much worse. No one is harmless. This is the basis for Maps of Meaning. Peterson is known for talking about how to live a meaningful life, but his impetus for his research was to understand why people commit atrocities. You can’t understand one without understanding the other. 

Stoic philosophy emphasizes virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is pragmatic because one’s virtue is one’s destiny. When we talk about virtue, we are talking about the characteristics of the agent. We’re talking about habits and habit formation—myelination of the axon.  

So while a Stoic would advocate focusing on what you can control and detaching yourself from the outcome, in Rother’s method, the application of the scientific method to daily activities, we use the Deming Cycle: 

  • plan and make a prediction, focusing on what you can control,
  • execute your plan faithfully (do),
  • study the results,
  • reflect on the meaning of those results and attempt to draw conclusions, or rather, material for a revised theory and a new prediction, on which you act, and
  • formulate a new plan again.

It’s not the essayification of everything. It’s continual experimentation. It isn’t revelatory, either. Or reading about it isn’t. You already know about it. It’s been embedded in our culture for thousands of years.

If we understand Buddhism, Stoicism, and Pragmatism in our bones, then we’ll understand that religion and spirituality are stepping stones. Not bad, just inferior.

The Ionian philosophers were using pure reason, were essayifying everything. The next step is to develop an experiment. Document everything. And experiment again.

But what happened with Buddhism is happening with science. The call to study what is in order to learn what can be is giving way to dogmatism. Research is being preached instead of questioned and demonstrated. 

A trap that I see my peers fall in is to treat published papers like scripture, to overestimate the value of others’ research as it pertains to them. There is no substitute for direct experimentation. And our experimentation should emulate the quality of those that pass peer review, but, failing that, we shouldn’t fail to experiment. Instead, the poorer the quality of the experiment, the more modest our conclusion should be. Which is fine. Even a very good experiment on only yourself may only tell you about yourself. That’s an admirable start.

If we design the experiment to our utmost, then our job is to identify the  limitations of what conclusions we can draw from it. Then perform another experiment.

Worshipping published research is maybe better than worshipping an idol, but maybe worse than worshipping an imaginary character who lives in and knows your heart and always gives you heaven-sent advice. The imagined personal savior is at least abstract and amorphous. It can grow with you. The meaning of research can only grow and expand with additional research. We can’t shirk our own flawed experiments.

The method for detaching yourself from the outcome is to treat all efforts to achieve an aim as an experiment. Every time you do an experiment, make a prediction (a description and a metric), execute faithfully, and gather the results. Study the results. Day dream. What did you learn. Be parsimonious. What did you learn? Be ruthless. What did you learn? Are you sure?

Use those results in the planning and prediction phase of your next experiment.

Imagine if prayer were replaced with meditation, and meditation on the breath were supplemented with meditation on the results of the last experiment and what the next experiment should be. Instead of attachment to outcomes, holding fast to this iterative process.

A Buddhist would have you detach yourself from all outcomes, actually stop outcomes. That’s the goal.

Outsourcing our experiments to others is unethical, because it deprives our soul of direct experience. 

“As long as our brain is a mystery, the universe, the reflection of the structure of the brain, will also be a mystery.”

Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Water Stories

Everything was drenched. The cloud canopy was aglow in the cooler wavelengths of deluge. Everything was slick. I commuted between neighbor cities. Arrived, I pulled into the vaguely unreal parking garage.

After changing to gym clothes, I walked to the Y, ran on the treadmill, and then stretched. This undid the pain from the long commute.

In Austerlitz, Sebald inserts 82 photographs. Or is it 84? According to this essay, the answer is 87. 

In an interview with Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm, Sebald agrees with Silverblatt’s observation that the narrative description circles around artifacts of the holocaust but mostly avoids them. The photographs follow that pattern. Many of the photographs are disturbing,  are of oppressive architecture and dismal scenes, but aren’t concentration camps. Silverblatt says that this “invisible referent” and “silent presence” is  “always left out but gestured toward.”

Sebald gives his reason for this approach and concludes his reply by saying that “…so the only way that one can approach these things, in my view, is obliquely, tangentially. By reference, rather than by direct confrontation.” 

The narrator’s thinking is so absorbed by a subject that, besides not wanting to speak about it directly, he doesn’t need to, because the residue of that thinking is evident in his observations on other artifacts. 

And that’s something strange about reading. Unless the reader recognizes and generates a challenging set of questions and,  by rereading the text and related texts, and by developing and testing hypotheses, endeavors to answer them, they remain what Rother calls a “permanent beginner.” (Page 18.) Never abandoning their habits completely enough to master a new  set, they spread out their existing patterns. They recognize and appreciate other skillsets but they never become proficient. 

Any text is so saturated in its context, it is necessarily more implication than assertion. And unless the reader can surface these implications, they are swept along. They follow patterns, in effect, under compulsion. Not that this needs to be described so disapprovingly. Floods can be talked about from a more geological perspective. 


The Objective

So, this isn’t a blog, but here’s an update: I made my presentation on the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata today. The audience was three IT managers. Of course, nothing I’ve written here was in the presentation, which was entirely a case study on a coach/learner improvement effort a project manager and I executed. The presentation suffered three major revisions—two after two rehearsals, and one after I slept on it. Cut were opinions and such. The details of the case study were expanded. The problem was my larynx was tight during the presentation, so I must have sounded like kermit the frog. This is a basic process error. A simple pre-presentation checklist would certainly have covered this.

Seth’s pre-presentation checklist:

  • Rehearse once per day for the three days leading up to the presentation.
  • For every fantasy you have of it going poorly, identify what is happening in that fantasy, and ask yourself if there’s something you can do to prevent that specifically. If you can, include that countermeasure in your next rehearsal, or at least mentally rehearse it. 
  • Review each slide and ask, “Why is this here?”
  • On the morning of the presentation, practice and speaking from your chest instead of your throat.

Or something. I don’t know. It’s a start. I need to get better at Word Press or CSS so I can adjust the vertical whitespace. Having the same amount of space before and after the header of a list is ugly af.

So, largely I was worried about the reaction of one of the three people, and his reaction was, relatively, very positive. It was basically, “OK, let’s try it. What do we do next?” Which I take to mean I prepared well for the presentation, not that this would have been his reaction regardless . 

Doing the kata this week has put me at odds against myself. This is normal, of course. Or it happens conspicuously and very often. I decide I am wrong-handed. I decide I like math and hate English. I decide I should only read. I decide to devote my life to drawing king fishers. (None of the above are made up.) This conviction is that I need to rely less on references and more on experiments.

On page 364 of The Dream of Reason, speaking about the Romans’ complicated admiration for Greek art, literature, and science, Anthony Gottlieb observes that the Romans, while more industrious than the Greeks, were less interested in empirical research. “The educated classes did not discard Greek intellectual habits altogether, but neither did they embrace them wholeheartedly. As a result, their philosophy was second-hand and so was their science, and second-hand science means no real science at all.” Going on, he says, “The romans wrote and read encyclopedias and compilations of interesting facts, but on the whole they did not share the Greeks’ drive to observe, understand, hypothesize, calculate and generally keep alive the spirit of inquiry.”

Stupid Romans.

When thinking about aims, I vacillate between the more demotic goal and the more martial objectiveAim is good, but less concrete. An aim seems in the air. End is archaic except in hackneyed phrases, though at least two authors have used it as a pun in their book titles. I can’t say goal without thinking about soccer. That’s certainly not true. A friend recently said that Every time I do such and such, I think such and such, but how could she know that? 

I also keep thinking about Schellenberg’s concept of non-believing faith.  Which is basically imagining that something is true, imagining how you would logically behave if it were true, and then attempting to behave that way. An example he gives is how a participant in a foot race behaves.

It turns out by a quirk of human psychology that, for most of us, the impetus of loss aversion is greater than goal attraction. We are more aroused by the threat of losing what we have than the possibility of getting something extra.  Sports psychologists use this to coach athletes to act as if a victory is rightfully theirs.

Lanny Bassham, an olympic gold-medalist, wrote a book based partly on this titled With Winning in Mind. His recipe is: write a description of your future self already having achieved a level of mastery that you currently aspire to. Describe, also, how that feels. Then describe, in detail, the process, day by day, week by week, to achieve that. Make copies of this short story, and post it in several places throughout your house, and read it through at least once per day.

Imagine having won, as if it were already a fact about you, and then behaving the way the imagined you behaved in your head to achieve that win, makes you more likely to win. You’re less likely to shirk during practice or give up the race early, because doing so would deprive you of something that, in your mind, is already yours. Behaving as if something is true, even though you know, logically, that it is not, is an intelligent way to behave. 

If you inadvertently found yourself running next to  a person in a foot race, and you overhead them saying aloud, “You’ll win. Keep going. You’re almost there. You’ll win. Good work. Keep going,” you probably wouldn’t correct them with the observation that they don’t in fact know whether they will win, unless you were rooting for another racer. But even if you did, it likely wouldn’t do any good, because the racer isn’t under any such delusion.

Conversations about what we believe and don’t believe rarely make much sense because they rarely get into epistemology. Interestingly, non-believing faith shares one characteristic of a common test of belief. I don’t know which philosopher coined it, but I’m sure you’ve heard that one way to define belief is an idea on which you are prepared to act. Belief motivates behavior. If a coworker tells you that they have a sure win on the NYSE, ask to see proof that they bought futures in it. But with non-believing faith, you also behave based on this mental construct. 

But I’ve left out one important feature of non-believing faith. In Schellenberg’s description of it, it is an idea about the universe that isn’t obviously false. For this and other reasons, it isn’t a god in any detail, or even a god at all as is popularly imagined. It’s instead an idea that there is some metaphysical object that is of ultimate importance and value.  Importantly, we cannot currently describe it in any detail (we’re a super young species, with an even younger set of active religions, a vanishingly young set of philosophical ideas, and a practically non-existent set of scientific observations and theories) and so we shouldn’t claim knowledge or even non-believing faith in any detailed descriptions. But we can use our imaginations and try to conceive, based on what we have experienced about the world, what behaviors seem to inclined towards a greater good, and which seem petty and short-sighted. 

Of course there are limits to this. We need standards by which we determine whether any prescribed behavior is achieving objective results. Imagination alone isn’t enough. But neither are tasks and short-term goals. Without a far, far off vision, without a transcendent sense of direction, the mind finds problems to solve that it already knows how to solve. It walks in the circles it finds comfortable.

This is what I experienced directly this week, and it’s why I feel like a stupid Roman. Seeing how hard it was for me to achieve simple objectives. What a challenge it was to measure cycle times, make a prediction, record a result, and draw some conclusion, I look back at my he-said she-said rambling and wonder how I’m different from any other true-believing mimic. 

But that’s fine. I was struggling to understand an idea. Now I’m struggling to experiment.


Today I got up with (or was it a little before?) the alarm clock. (Will the electric grid collapse today?) (Am I becoming more compulsive?) The Klinkenborg technique is to draft and rewrite a sentence in your head. Write it down afterwards. The Pomodoro technique is to focus on one process at a time, for 25 minutes. Pema Chödrön’s insight is, when your attention wanders, bring it back kindly. (Do not discourage yourself from noticing. That is the work.) BJ Fogg’s method is to write and practice minuscule recipes, which revolve around habits you already have, and to celebrate these minute behaviors. Ericsson documented the conditions under which you can reshape your brain. Identify a behavior you can’t perform. Find a way of getting feedback. Struggle to perform it every day. The soul is the unconscious mind. What we call god is the unconscious universe. The work of our conscious mind is to connect the two, so that the one reshapes the other, and then the other reciprocates. Cal Newport suggests that we do this without distractions. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observed that absorption is liberating. We learned to be self-conscious to keep ourselves from getting cast out. That god we must please is an elder. If we fail him, we have to contend with the source. What is outside the circle. Wayne C. Booth et al teach us how to have dialogue with our elders. Philip Zimbardo does not say that if we look on the past with love we can create more and more that is beautiful, but he does a little. He does observe that people who love the past act more responsibly. Peterson preaches the wisdom of dying to our past self, and so does Rother, and Ericsson, and Chödrön. We should only let live what we want to see more of? But of course it’s both. Always both. I used to be unable to follow through on my plans, and, also, I loathed, instant by instant, my past self. But that’s who made the plans. Who is this that turns this sentence over and over? I notice that the traffic light outside my window stays red for thirty seconds but green for only twenty-five. Main Street gets five second more than 4th. Is that reasonable? If you could even celebrate each time you brought your attention back. We strength-train by lifting, not just holding. Plato (or was it Socrates?) taught us that to learn is to remember. Later, we learned that recollection is its own deliberate practice, distinct from recognition. Can you ask yourself a question? How? Can you rephrase it? Jung said: however far-fetched it may sound, experience shows that many neuroses are caused by the fact that people blind themselves to their religious promptings because of a childish passion for rational enlightenment. Is that true today? If you rephrase it, isn’t it a different question? The three turns of the wheel is the more relevant teaching. Everything else follows. 

Discovery Rituals


I want to tell you about Mike Rother’s book Toyota Kata, but we are going to have to take some turns to get there. You know how sometimes if you talk with someone who has been practicing a discipline or craft for a long time—and it almost doesn’t matter which one—they’ll tell you how, over time, it has shaped their life? It isn’t everyone that says this, which is maybe more interesting than that anyone says it, but some people will tell you (and maybe you’re one of those people) that their vocation, or their primary hobby, teaches them how to live.  Rother’s book taught me that this also applies to industrial engineering and management practices.

I already had a hunch. It’s hard to explain why without getting into a long digression about manufacturing and the automobile industry in the US and Japan, but I will try to make it a short digression. Some really smart researchers have in effect devoted their professional lives to trying to answer questions something like: ‘why are Toyota manufacturing plants more productive and efficient than US plants?’ and ‘why can’t US companies seem to duplicate this success—even the ones who are specifically trying to employ the same manufacturing methods, and even though Toyota is very open in discussing, even publishing, these methods?’ This topic has been written about so much that an episode of This American Life is devoted to it.
     If you’re skeptical about the dominance of Toyota in the 20th century, consider that from 1937 to 2008, it operated at a profitgained market share, and produced more reliable cars than American automobile manufacturers. And Rother observes  that US companies have been trying, openly, for decades, to mimic the Toyota Production System and failing to do so.
     What Toyota eventually started calling the Toyota Production System is more or less what the process community in the US calls lean manufacturing, from the term lean production system, coined by John Krafcik in an article published in the MIT Sloan Management Review in 1988.
     The process improvement community has a lot of lean true believers. When a company I worked at announced that a group of us would be taking Lean Six Sigma training, my favorite co-worker at the time, observing the reaction this received, commented to me, ‘I wish they’d calm down. It’s not a new religion.’ I wasn’t so sure.
     Given the impact Japanese automotive manufacturing has had on the US economy, it’s not surprising that writers who think they’ve answered these question get excited. I wondered if I had picked up on some of that enthusiasm. I read books by J. Edwards Deming, Jeffrey Liker, John Shook, John Krafcik, and Jim Womack. A lot of it was dry, but there were always paragraphs that made my spine tingle in a way that would have made more sense if I were reading a book on another topic—a book by Pëma Chödrön on meditation, or even David Allen on time management, books whose authors purported to be telling you something that should have have a big impact on your life. But I wasn’t just picking up something in their tone. At times, reading Rother, I felt a strange disorientation, as if, lost in thought, I had wandered into another room and was now holding the wrong book.
     And it wasn’t that these books were giving me insight into how to improve my career. I had by this time left the manufacturing industry. I was still doing technical writing and process improvement, but for office processes. I felt that these books were telling me how to live. This thought was a second layer of disorientation. Even after reflecting, and after going back and rereading a jarring paragraph, I found that I wasn’t mistaken. The text felt big. It felt bigger than my books on buddhism, on spirituality, on meditation. It felt fundamental, transcendent. It wasn’t until I read Jordan Peterson’s book Maps of Meaning that I started to see why.

It seems impossible it extricate or summarize the web of concepts of MoM. It is a huge book, and dense, and it doesn’t even cover that much ground. It circles and circles Jungian concepts and mythological examples, and it bores into them with explanations from modern psychology. It is utterly convincing. But if I were to pick one quote to summarize MoM, it would be from Jung.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Carl Jung

Consider this quote in the context that all of your perceptions are perceived first, and maybe only, by your unconscious mind. The feeling of being conscious of seeing something isn’t what is doing the seeing. If anything, it is the experience of several modules in our brain all firing their synapses in similar patterns, all looking at the same thing, creating this special feeling of consciousness. 

The brain isn’t designed to observe objects. For millions of years, before our eyes even worked very well, we evolved to perceive threats and potential (typically reproductive or caloric) rewards. Our brain has grown a lot of sophisticated modules over the past few million years, but it hasn’t gotten rid of its underlying structures. The brain, at its base, still sees threats and potential rewards. And by sees, I mean sees. It sees them before, and with greater cognitive resonance than, our visual cortex. In the same way that you will pull your hand away from a hot object without a conscious thought, because the reaction is coming from your spinal column, not your brain, so your brain processes the contextual relevance of an object to your interests before you process it as an object with color and shape and so on. And mythology works at this level, the Unconscious level. So do rituals.

Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is a qualitatively different phenomenon. Science might be considered “description of the world with regards to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible” or “specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end).” Myth can be more accurately regarded as “description of the world as it signifies (for action).” The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique or shared affective valence, their value, their motivational significance. The Sky (An) and the Earth (Ki) of the Sumerians are not the sky and earth of modern man, therefore; they are the Great Father and Mother of all things (including the thing—En-lil, who is actually a process—that in some sense gave rise to them).

MoM, page 9.

The reason myth acts in this way is because this is the way in which our brains most naturally act. We have evolved some cultural habits of observing objects as objects. But it’s a learned skill. Science, as the Pragmatists figured out, helps us understand the world the way works precisely because of these features of psychology. The scientific method is to make a prediction (to try to achieve an aim, even if, with our sophistication, we know we’re actually trying to disprove a hypothesis) and learn from the difference of what we expected and what resulted. 
     Science allows us to see because it puts reality in our way, makes it an obstacle, alters its significance by altering its context.
     The reason the text of Rother’s book felt bigger was because my unconscious mind perceived its importance, before my conscious mind could.

The unconscious mind is always perceiving the world through its own language, and this affects the way we behave. And the less aware of this we are, the more we are subject to it.


The reason that US corporations failed for so long at duplicating the success of Toyota, even as they were trying to duplicate their manufacturing techniques, is that these techniques are operating on at least three levels at once:

  1. They are natural and obvious patterns that emulate perfect flow. Whereas in buffered production systems, there are excesses of inputs and outputs upstream and downstream of each work station, so that if any work station runs into problems, the station after it has enough inputs to keep running for awhile, and the station before it has enough space to stack up outputs for awhile, lean production systems are modified to disallow this, so that if one work station encounters problems, those before it and after it have to stop, also. This weakness also has the advantage of being closer to the ideal of perfect flow than its buffered alternative. Imagine if work stations had no downtime, if there were no mechanical problems. Then you wouldn’t want buffer. You’d want each work station to deliver its output to the station downstream of it, which would make its improvements to the part, and hand it off, and so on. The the nirvana of industry. The TPS emulates that, moving always towards it.
  2. Because a lean production system is also fragile (meaning it has to stop for problems), if it is viewed correctly, it brings focus onto the problems of any production system. It alters the contextual significance of the problems in a facility, because those problems are stopping the line. They  stop the line because management set up the production system so they would stop the line. This is is why many US companies gave up on a lean production system eventually. Without the perspective of seeing the system at its multiple levels of utility, the most obvious solution to a line stopping repeatedly is to add the buffer back, which is what happened, either all at once, in a throwing up of hands, or over time, as workers dealt with problems in the way most obvious to them. Without understanding that the point of a lean production system is to both show you your problems and force you to deal with them, if instead you are under the misperception that you should be able to set up your production system like Toyota’s and it will run smoothly, it’s hard come to any other conclusion than that lean just doesn’t work for your plant. 
  3. Which brings us to the third layer: if you use your manufacturing facility like a laboratory, in which experiments in lean techniques result in clear reactions (lines stopping, failure to make daily production rates, and so on), and management is diligent and steadfast in its priorities, then there is plenty of incentive to be innovative in finding ways to solve the problems that are keeping you from your objectives, especially if the team works together to identify a Next Target Condition that, while challenging, is attainable. You don’t try to go from GM in the 1970’s to Toyota in the 1990’s in a single improvement. You set a series of what Rother calls “Next Target Conditions,” moving your process, inch by inch, closer to an ideal of one-piece-flow, in which waste and buffer are removed, and the process imperfections that keep you from achieving the Next Target Condition are diligently and scientifically dealt with, through a series of hypotheses and experiments, until eventually a breakthrough comes, and the Next Target Condition becomes the Current Condition, at which time the process starts over.

Seen this way, Toyota’s method was not, as US companies misunderstood for so long, precisely an engineering one. It was a ritualistic one. It operated at the psychological level, by 1. moving them towards an ideal, 2. showing them, among all the noise, what was their next obstacle to overcome, and 3. giving them the motivation to overcome it.


In his book Maps of Meaning, Peterson describes these same concepts, but in different contexts. He explains how specific myths (from the Enûma Eliš to the Passion to the myth of St. George slaying the dragon) symbolically represent a hero voluntarily facing the threatening unknown, despite their fear, learning the nature of it, and overcoming it. 
     The alternative to voluntarily facing frightening and unknown threats is to avoid them. You might cultivate order and certainty in your established domain (your country, or city, or apartment, or brain) and try to ignore that changing reality around you. The problem with this technique is it is doomed 100% if the time if it runs long enough. Maybe some people can get through a lifetime living this way, but only because they are supported by society around them. 
     But do societies that are expansionist, that do not wall themselves in, that do not avoid threats, get to exist forever? I don’t know much history, but if I look at the US, it seems clear to me that, while we have a military and cultural presence throughout the world, we have a real education problem, which means a problem thinking. Too many of us are terrible at analysis and comprehension. And of course the symbolism of the myths applies to life in general, so a dragon can exist across the Atlantic, or it can exist in your medicine cabinet.
     The US is super young by historical standards, and yet during our ascendant century, we have seen the beginning of mass extinction and the climatic prelude to much more mass extinction. Talk about a dragon. And what percentage of the population even think climate change poses a serious threat? According to a recent poll, 42%.
     And a point that Rother and Peterson make is that development (improvement, growth, learning) doesn’t happen without struggle. Discomfort is a necessary part of change, and when the change is voluntary, this means the discomfort is partly from the willpower you are having to exert to make the change. The benefit is you can make the change before it is forced on you. Taiichi Ohno, in his book Toyota Production System: Beyond Large Scale Production (which I just finished reading this morning), also observes this. Ohno is the father of the Toyota Production System (though the Toyodas, Sakichi and Kiichiro, developed the Just-In-Time and self-stopping automation concepts) and, as he describes in his book, a tremendous amount of turmoil was involved in changing Toyota from a company that was trying to imitate Ford’s mass production, low-diversivity-product-blend system to what would become, first Toyota’s, and then Japan’s, iconic system of lower production, highly diverse product blend. This turmoil from Toyota staff came at a time when the head of the company was saying, we have to catch up with Ford in three years, or we’re done for.  So it wasn’t that Ohno’s coworkers didn’t want change. The problem was they didn’t see his vision.
     Which seems to be the situation the US is in today. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t think we need to change what we’re doing. Disagreement seems to be around what’s wrong and what should we do differently. 

So, I’ve posted three blogs now on this topic, and none of them are particularly good. Each of them comes close to getting at what I am trying to say, but none of them do it felicitously or all in the same essay.
     The Triumph of Fragility is wide-ranging, and goes into details on Peterson’s book. This essay talks more about my experience. John Dewey and Mike Rother: Pragmatic Dreamers focuses more how lean production techniques force workers to change, and describes Rother’s training material a little more.
     None of these is very good. There are good reasons for that. One is that I still don’t understand them very well. And one reason for that is, for the past couple of years, I have been trying to blend time management techniques with Rother’s Improvement Kata. This has had some advantages. I have been relatively productive at work. I have not, however, learned very much about Rother’s IK. In November I will take training on the IK, and in the meantime, I am using his training material on its own, without blending with my existing practices. To fail to do this is a recipe for what Rother calls a “permanent beginner,” someone who never develops mastery at something because they haven’t drilled on the fundamentals of it.

John Dewey and Mike Rother: The Pragmatic Dreamers

In this article, I discuss Mike Rother’s book Toyota Kata and its implications.


Mike Rother writes books about the Toyota Production System. Unlike his more notable peers, he did not attend the MIT Sloan School of Business. (John Roos was the founding director of the their International Automobile Program, for which Jim Womack was research director and John Krafcik was a researcher.) He never worked at Toyota. (Jeffrey Liker and John Shook did.) But he is a researcher at the University of Michigan College of Engineering, where Jeffrey Liker is a professor.  

He doesn’t write about why the Toyota Production System (also known as a lean production system) is more efficient than other production systems, or how to introduce them at your manufacturing facility, which seems strange since he consulted for manufacturers in the US and Germany for years. He writes about how people who continuously increase the leanness of their production system transform themselves into more objective, inquisitive, and team-oriented problem-solvers, people who test their assertions instead of arguing for them, who call solutions hypotheses and their implementation experiments. Scientists, basically.

Why is writing about Toyota so popular? It’s partly because from from 1937 to 2008, it operated at a profit,1 gained market share,2 and produced more reliable cars3  than American automobile manufacturers. It may also be because, for as long as researchers have been trying to learn, teach, and sell books about how to achieve a lean production system, American companies have been failing to do so.4

And they were really motivated to succeed. In 1988, The Sloan Management Review published an article5 that illustrates though some complicated math that the leanness of a facility significantly correlates with its productivity. The article, written by Jon Krafcik titled Triumph of the Lean Production System, describes Krafcik’s research of 50 facilities in the US, Europe, and Japan. It outlines the analysis that he performed.

Krafcik looked at an array of factors: location, management policies, dollar investment in automation, age of robots, age of the plant, variety of cars produced, rework area, and others. In the article, when contrasting lean from buffered facilities, he observes that the former had extra material on hand, extra personnel to tackle unexpected problems, and extra equipment on standby. He used linear regression analysis and found that facilities with less buffer were more productive. They were also more profitable.

He also found a problem with lean operations.

It is clear, too, that lean management policies have inherent risks that must be managed with a great deal of discipline and skill. From the experience of Japanese and Western producers, it appears that this risk can be largely neutralized by developing a well-trained, flexible workforce, product designs that are easy to build with high quality, and a supportive, high-performance supplier network.

The Triumph of the Lean Production System

Lean production systems have little buffer, so they are more likely to need to stop production when there is a problem. Buffered production systems keep going.

Imagine a shop floor with five work stations. The first station is upstream of the other four. The last station is downstream of the four. The center three have both upstream and downstream stations. The upstream stations feed their outputs downstream, where they are inputs. Each station takes an input, performs a process on it, and produces an output, which goes downstream. The input of the first station is raw material, delivered from another facility. The output of the final station is a deliverable, ready to be shipped.

At a buffered facility, if workstation three is having problems and producing below-average output, the upstream and downstream workstations can keep producing because at each station there is a buffer of input and adequate space to stack output. And since none of the operators is at capacity, one can can leave their station to help address the problem without their downstream process running out of input.

Now imagine a lean facility. The operators are at capacity, and there is no buffer between stations. If station 3 falls behind, station four runs out of input, and station 2 doesn’t have space to stack output, because the shop floor was designed without it. Production stops until the problem at station 3 is resolved.

This is an illustration of a lean technique called one piece flow, or 1×1. Each work station gets an input, processes it, and places it downstream, where the next workstation is ready to process it. It is also an example of a broader concept called Just-In-Time, or JIT.

(There are many techniques. Five that get discussed a lot are one piece flow, takt time, andon,  kanban, heijunka and jidoka.7  Just-In-Time or kanban is probably the most famous, though kanban is used in more than one way. It is used to refer to a visual management system using cards and columns.  The way I’m using it in this essay is similar but not quite. It does involve visual management, but a particular kind, called a visual pull system.

Imagine numerous upstream workstations that produce parts for numerous downstream workstations at a facility that produces a numerous variety of products from various combinations of these parts. For complex logistical reasons, the process isn’t able to achieve one piece flow, or even for the upstream workstations to know precisely the input requirements of the downstream stations for any given day.

The way that traditional facilities managed this was for a production scheduler to guess, and turn that guess into output requirements for each upstream workstation. Those stations would produce that amount and ‘push’ them to the downstream processes, where they stacked up if they weren’t ready for them.

The kanban technique has to parts:

  1. Build repositories [for example, bins] with level indicators that show when inventory is low and needs replenished, and when it is high, and no more should be deposited. The upstream workstations, instead of following the guessed-at schedules, produce output when the inventory in a bin drops to a low level, and they stop when they fill it back up.
  2. Observe the level of the bins. When the upstream is able to consistently maintain the level, without it getting too high or too low, move the lines down. Make it harder. Move it closer to one piece flow.

For Rother’s clients (and he has had hundreds over the years), due to long lists of stubborn and often obscure obstacles in their operations, their culture, and their equipment,  this was exasperatingly difficult. First management installs a bunch of unnecessary bins, when things worked just fine when they just stacked output on pallets on the shop floor, then, just when they start getting used to the new system (and maybe even start to enjoy the organization of the yellow bins) some dick from management comes out and fucks with the levels.  Imagine the meetings. Imagine the union complaints. After failure and frustration, they decided the technique wasn’t for them, and they went back to their traditional methods. And this is just one example of one technique. All of the lean techniques are challenging, and, as Krafcik observed, risky. But it’s not just that, they are unnecessarily challenging. It’s as if they make it harder just to make it harder.)

So, why is the lean process more productive than the buffered? And why should American manufacturers try to implement such exasperatingly difficult techniques, when it’s not even clear that they are necessary? Krafcik’s article showed correlation but not causation, and many executives in America in the latter part of the 20th century believed that either Toyota was only doing better because of macroeconomic reasons (examples: currency exchange rates, weakness of the yen against the dollar) or because of the culture, not of Toyota, but of Japan. (Krafcik addresses this last misperception at the outset of his article, and dispelling it is a theme.) Despite these misgivings, the answer, for a few decades, that researchers and books offered went something like this: they are more productive because they are more efficient. They waste less. Wasting less makes you more productive and more profitable.

And there were good reasons to believe this. Taiichi Ohno, the architect of the what would later be called the Toyota Production System was famously obsessed with waste. Besides being brilliant, he was autocratic, and he gave marching orders: discover waste, and eliminate it. He had a list of the seven wastes (muda in Japanese). One would be forgiven for perceiving the lean techniques, developed by Ohno, the waste-hater, as methods intended solely for expunging waste.

Rother’s explanation is different. He came to it piece by piece while consulting for manufacturers in the US and Germany. Over and over, he found that when manufacturers tried to run lean processes, they failed spectacularly. Production came to a halt. People got angry, and the lesson that many organizations came to was, ‘lean is not for us.’ Who knows why it works for Toyota. Maybe they’re lying. But it doesn’t work here. After hearing this enough times, and with the help of conversations with Toyota employees, Rother began to have a revelation. What makes lean facilities more productive isn’t precisely that they operate using lean techniques; they become more productive in their struggle to do so. Failure is part of the purpose of lean techniques. Not the sole purpose. The techniques are also models of simplicity, elegance and order. (This may have been partly why it was so hard to see their hidden purpose.) But the purpose that makes them worth pursuing. 

The promise that the early books seem to offer is, if you can reach or come close to this ideal state, your company will be profitable. 

Rother offers a new deal: if you persistently and intelligently work together to move towards this vision by setting a series of more and more challenging target conditions, your employees will develop a level of knowledge and creative flexibility, a mastery of their environment, that they would not have otherwise. 

It isn’t that implementing lean techniques makes a facility more productive. It is the changes in the characteristics of the team that does it. What Rother discovered after so many had failed in their search was that Toyota is playing internal games, for which it sets its own rules. It competes with itself. It is setting difficult, even impossible challenges, so that it can learn more about itself, discover and overcome its weaknesses, weaknesses which the games reveal. The obstacles that keep a part of the process (a set of work stations) from achieving the target condition (one piece flow, kanban, or one of the many other techniques, most of which involve some kind of metric that can always be tightened until it is unattainable ) are the obstacles that the team needs to work on next. Whenever a Toyota process actually achieves a challenge it has set, it sets the bar higher. Otherwise, the game would be over, and the learning would stop. 

We should think of and use the pull system as a tool to establish target conditions in our effort to keep improving toward the ideal state condition. Each state we achieve is simply the prelude to another.

This last point was made clear by remarks from two Toyota people. The first was: “The purpose of kanban is to eliminate the kanban.” While I was still pondering that one, I heard another Toyota person say: “We don’t know how you make progress without kanban.”

Toyota Kata, page 99


The Triumph of Fragility
In Figure 5 of his article, perhaps the most important figure in the article because it shows the correlation between the leanness of a production system and its productivity, Krafcik makes an interesting choice. Instead of using the terms lean and buffered, as he had throughout the article, he uses the terms fragile and robust.

Why would a fragile system be more productive than a robust one?

If a manufacturing facility is a laboratory, then a fragile one would respond clearly to experimental changes. A robust laboratory would not. It would run just about the same unless you made significant effort to trip it up.

An organization needs to be a laboratory because people learn through experience. While the obvious reason to experiment on a system is to find ways to improve it, a more subtle benefit is there: the operator is learning about the nature of the system. She is learning, not just how to improve the system, but what the system is like. This gives her power that the operator of a robust system does not have. Maybe more importantly, in ingrains in her the habit and discipline of objective, scientific-thinking. (This is the primary premise of Toyota Kata.)

This was the insight of John Dewey and the Pragmatist philosophers: people learn when they test their understanding of the world by making a prediction, acting in some way that could falsify that prediction, and observing the results. If their prediction bears out, then maybe their understanding isn’t wrong. If it doesn’t, they know they need to revise it.

I acknowledge that another blogger has made basically the same argument.


The Triumph of Science

To see the outcome is to know in what direction the present experience is moving, provided it move normally and soundly. The far-away point, which is of no significance to us simply as far away, becomes of huge importance the moment we take it as defining a present direction of movement. Taken in this way it is no remote and distant result to be achieved, but a guiding method in dealing with the present.

John Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum 

The philosophy of Pragmatism is inspired by the scientific method and promotes scientific thinking, but writing this today, that might be a confusing statement. I notice a tendency among my peers to treat science as the corpus of peer-reviewed research papers. The problem with that is, even if every published research article had a sound design of experiment and was reproducible, the fact that it exists and you can read it doesn’t mean that your doing so improves your understanding of the world. Acting in the belief that this new knowledge is true, and observing the results, does.

The map is not a substitute for a personal experience. The map does not take the place of an actual journey. The logically formulated material of a science or branch of learning, of a study, is no substitute for the having of individual experiences. The mathematical formula for a falling body does not take the place of personal contact and immediate individual experience with the falling thing. But the map, a summary, an arranged and orderly view of previous experiences, serves as a guide to future experience; it gives direction; it facilitates control; it economizes effort, preventing useless wandering, and pointing out the paths which lead most quickly and most certainly to a desired result. 

John Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum

A buffered environment is like a coddling parent, while a lean one not only lets you make mistakes, but arranges is so that you receive high fidelity feedback promptly.

It’s a cliche` that we learn by doing. Actually, we learn by testing our understanding. We learn by seeing if we’re right. A lean environment is conducive to this learning; a buffered one is not.


Rother’s genius is to take this wisdom and systematize it. In his books, he is drawing maps by which we can chart our own education. He says in a lecture (he has many available on youtube) that his primary interest is not in helping corporations, but in influencing primary education. You see these interests on his website .

He is doing both amazingly well. By drilling down into this subject, he has created material that anyone can use to change their life, because he takes the psychology of the scientific method and combines it with the psychology of habit-formation. His online training material and his books break down the concepts into practice routines we can use to develop the habits of scientific thinking.

In his book (quoted above) John Dewey presents the paradox: one needs a pattern to follow, some behavior to duplicate, so that they can walk out on their own and make their own discoveries. Pure inculcation won’t work, nor will random trial and error. Or at least, neither is efficient. Rother’s method is to train coaches, who can train ‘learners’ in the basic steps of the scientific method, and then let them (the learners) attempt to employ what they have learned.

This is all based on the Deming Cycle.

  1. You make a plan, which is a hypothesis about the way things are, the way things should be, what you should do to achieve this desired state, and a prediction about what will happen when you try.
  2. Then you run your experiment.
  3. Then you study the results.
  4. Then you reflect. You ask, what did those results tell me? Should I behave similarly in the future, or differently?

By training learners to perform what he calls Improvement Kata (a series of behaviors that promote scientific learning) Rother both teaches and doesn’t. He teaches the learner how to learn for themselves. That may sound like a cliche` too, but ask yourself, how many times have you seen it done successfully? It is painstaking to teach someone to learn for themselves, because you have to help them develop each behavior through diligent practice. You can’t just tell them how to do it. This is why Rother emphasizes the use of coaches and learners. He doesn’t claim that, by reading his books, you will be successful. He claims that, if you read his books, and engage in a coach/learner relationship in a supportive group, you might.

So, rather, he doesn’t teach how to learn. He teaches how to put yourself in a situation that will promote your drilling on the behaviors of learning. He provides not only the map, but also instructions on how use it, and instructions on how to draw your own map.

He teaches you to create your own kanban, and lower your own levels. 





6Buffering is used in manufacturing to compensate for variations in the production process. Changes in supply and demand would be an example of these variations. Think of buffering as a means to ensure that production lines continue running smoothly despite unforeseen factors, such as machine breakdowns, coming into play.’

7 Toyota Kata, page viii

the purpose of this blog


Why would you start a blog?
Is there a good time to start? There can’t be. There can’t be a good time to start thinking as hard as you can about something, and then showing what that looks like. It is always dangerous because you will be at least temporarily exiled from the people that you know. These familiars are strange now because their valence has changed. Now they have something that you want. 

Before you only pointed at what they were likely to also see. You saw a sign, and so did they. Now you are signaling in strange ways. You can see it on their face. They don’t see it, and now there is doubt between you. And you’ve already tried your best. That was your output, and now you are waiting on them to look at you with recognition in their eyes.

So you should start now. Never put off alienation, because it will come eventually.  We are estranged by almost everything because we do not consciously connect our unconscious mind with the unconscious world. We do not let that unconscious everything that is outside of us reconfigure our mind in its perfect image.

I say you and we to mean I, but don’t put it that way.

We mistake the consciousness for what is sacred and encompassing. If it exists at all, it is a spectator.

So I am writing to complete a circle. To watch myself write, to put back into the unconscious world what my unconscious mind observed, and to allow my unconscious mind to see what happens to the faces of a few readers when they unconsciously react. Gratefully, I can be conscious of some of this, superficially. And I can reflect on it.


I’m here to write about books mostly. Some of my favorite authors are

  • Verlyn Klinkenborg
  • Jordan Peterson
  • Mike Rother
  • Philip Roth
  • Gregory Orr
  • Cal Newport
  • Anders Ericsson
  • Wayne C. Booth
  • Chip and Dan Heath
  • David Allen
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  • David Shields
  • Daniel Dennett
  • Steven Pinker
  • Philip Zimbardo
  • Pëma Chödrön
  • James Wood
  • Anthony Gottlieb
  • Alberto Manguel
  • Karen Martin
  • W Edwards Deming
  • George Saunders

and I want to write about them so that I can better understand what they are saying.