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Harish Jose


Wu Wei at the Gemba

No force necessary

Published: Thursday, April 2, 2020 - 12:02

In today’s column, I am looking at wu wei, which is an important concept detailed in the Chinese classic text, Tao Te Ching. This term is generally translated into English as wu = no, wei = action, or no action. There are other similar concepts in Taosim such as wu shin or no mind.

Alan Watts, the delightful English philosopher described wu wei as “not forcing”:
“The whole conception of nature is as a self-regulating, self-governing, indeed democratic organism. But it has a totality that all goes together, and this totality is the Tao. When we can speak in Taoism of ‘following the course of nature; following the way,’ what it means is more like this: Doing things in accordance with the grain. It doesn’t mean you don’t cut wood, but it means that you cut wood along the lines where wood is most easy to cut, and you interact with other people along lines which are the most genial. And this then is the great fundamental principle which is called wu wei, which is not to force anything. I think that’s the best translation. Some call it ‘not doing,’ ‘not acting, ‘not interfering,’ but ‘not to force’ seems to me to hit the nail on the head. Like don’t ever force a lock; you’ll bend the key or break the lock. You jiggle until it revolves.

So wu wei is always to act in accordance with the pattern of things as they exist. Don’t impose on any situation as a kind of interference that is not really in accordance with the situation. It will be better to do nothing, than to interfere without knowing the system of relations that exist."

As a person interested in systems thinking and cybernetics, Watts’ explanation left a strong impression on me. When we try to solve a problem or “fix a system,” we assume a position outside the system, looking in. We don’t realize that in order to manage the system, we need to be a part of the system. The system itself is a conceptual model that we are using to make sense of the portion of the world we are interested in. The system is not a real entity in the world. It is exactly a construction of the observer.

Second-order cybernetics teaches us that I, the observer, am a part of the system that I am observing. In a similar manner, there are other observers in the system as active participants. Their system is different from ours. Each observer stipulates a purpose for the system from his standpoint. Any human system is highly complex. Take for example, the healthcare system. It means different things to different people, depending on how they view themselves in the system.

The first act of systems thinking is to understand that the system is your mental construct, and that there are several such “systems” constructed by the participants. We need to seek understanding of how others perceive their purpose in order to make sense, and then collaborate to improve.

From a wu wei standpoint, Watts’ advice of understanding the constraints, the pattern of things as they exist, is highly important, if you want to make sense of the system you are interested in. At the same time, we also need to understand the perspectives of others interacting. We should also be aware of the environment we are in, and how we interact with the environment, and also how it interacts with us.

The paradoxical lesson of wu wei is that in order to act, one must not-act. This does not mean not doing anything, but as Alan Watts taught—don’t force anything, go with the grain.

This brings me to Heinz von Foerster, the nephew of the brilliant philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Von Foerster was also a great cybernetician and gave us the term “second-order cybernetics.” He defined first-order cybernetics as the cybernetics of observed systems, and second-order cybernetics as the cybernetics of observing systems. In second order, one reflects upon one’s reflections. One of von Foerster’s imperatives that aligns with wu wei is his therapeutic imperative: “If you want to be yourself, change!” This may seem paradoxical at first. My view on this imperative is that the only constant phenomenon is change. Therefore, to remain yourself, you need to change with your environment.

How does this all go with gemba? Gemba is the actual place where things happen. It is the environment; it is the reality. Most often, we come to the gemba with our agenda and understanding of how things really work in the real place! We may start making changes without truly understanding the existing relations, without truly understanding that the system we are trying to fix is just our perspective with our imagined causal relationships. We cannot manage unless we are part of that which we are trying to manage. We cannot stipulate purposes for others. We need to seek understanding first. Wu wei teaches us to go with grain rather than against the grain. Wu wei is taking action with knowledge of the existing relations.

I will finish with more lessons from Watts:
“Anybody who wants to alter the situation must first of all become sensitive to all the conditions and relationships going on there. It’s terribly important to have this feeling of the interdependence of every form of life upon every other form of life.... Wu-wei is the understanding that energy is gravity. And thus, brush writing, or dancing, or judo, or sailing, or pottery, or even sculpture is following patterns in the flow of liquid.”

First published Jan. 26, 2020, on Harish’s Notebook.


About The Author

Harish Jose’s picture

Harish Jose

Harish Jose has more than seven years experience in the medical device field. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla, where he obtained a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering and published two articles. Harish is an ASQ member with multiple ASQ certifications, including Quality Engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt, and Reliability Engineer. He is a subject-matter expert in lean, data science, database programming, and industrial experiments, and publishes frequently on his blog Harish’s Notebook.