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Kevin Meyer


A Break to Reflect and Unlearn

A ‘beginner’s mind’ is essential in a lean company

Published: Wednesday, May 4, 2016 - 14:33

During  the past few years I’ve been working hard on cultivating positive habits. New habits can be powerful. But habits can also create barriers that limit our perspective, which can hinder kaizen, creativity, and even our knowledge of ourselves. We’ve all found ourselves in the proverbial “rut” at times. Sometimes we just need a break to re-center, recalibrate, recharge, or readjust our horizons.

In the Zen world, this is known as datsuzoku, a break from the routine. Datsuzoku can be as simple as getting a good night’s sleep or as common as taking a week of vacation. It’s also a great time for reflection.

I have a fairly standardized reflection routine, hansei, that includes a daily reflection in the evening, more extensive monthly and quarterly reflections, and an in-depth annual reflection where I also set goals for the upcoming year.

How am I doing, mentally, spiritually, and physically? What am I grateful for? What do I need to forgive myself for? Am I on track to achieve my personal and professional goals? What countermeasures do I need to put in place? What new opportunities can I create? What should I do more or less of? What activities or thoughts should I stop? Regularly reflecting and asking (and answering!) those questions is critical for effective professional and personal leadership.

I’m currently back in Hawaii for a few days, a break from the routine that helps augment a quarterly reflection. Hawaii is a special place for me because my wife was born here, we were married here, and the wind, sun, and waves seem to transmit and infuse nature’s energy in a deeper and more meaningful way than other tropical locales. I may do some work in the early morning or late evening, but during the day I disconnect, soak in the ocean, read, and reflect.

It’s been a good start to the year, and I’m happy with my progress toward several goals. This year one goal was to read a work of fiction from a different culture each month. So far this year:
• January: One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Harper, 2003)
• February: The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead Books, 2013)
• March: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (Anchor, 1994)
• April: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (NAL reprint, 2009)

The Kite Runner was especially good, while One Hundred Years of Solitude was engaging but difficult due to a large family where everyone had similar names.

I have also made considerable progress on my own book, The Simple Leader, and it should be published in late May. The copyediting process was very humbling, but the comments I’ve received from other authors that have reviewed it are gratifying.

And, after Paul Akers inspired me toward the end of last year, I’ve continued my lean health journey and have reached my original goal to lose 30 pounds and become much stronger. Being in better shape than I’ve been in more than 30 years feels great! Now to sustain and refine.

As I was reflecting on my personal and professional goals I began to realize that some of them may be based on faulty assumptions, based purely on my perceptions (or, even worse, the accepted perceptions of others) and bias rather than fact.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.
Shunryu Suzuki

One of the core concepts of Zen is shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.” This is a perspective that is free of preconceived ideas and opinions, and is open to new thought. Embracing shoshin requires “unlearning” what you thought you already knew—in effect, creating a beginner’s mind.

As we become older and supposedly wiser, creating a beginner’s mind can become increasingly difficult. It becomes even more so when an entire team or organization needs to unlearn and develop a beginner’s perspective. Unlearning is critical in a lean environment because so many of the concepts initially appear counterintuitive, such as one-piece flow vs. batch production.

Being biased is a result of not having a beginner’s mind. There are many forms of bias—confirmation, loss aversion, conformity, survivorship, and anchoring, just to name a few.

How do we create a beginner’s mind? Begin by focusing on questions, not answers. When observing a process, especially one you’ve seen many times, try to avoid jumping ahead to conclusions. Take one step (one question) at a time. Similarly, be aware that what seems like common sense may not be. Avoid using the word “should” since it implies a predetermined or expected outcome. Be careful with experience. What you already know should be an input, not a given. Be comfortable with saying “I don’t know.”

So when you reflect—daily, monthly, quarterly, or whenever—also take the time to think about your perspective. Do you need to unlearn? Do you need to free yourself from bias? How will you do that?

Being honest with yourself will enhance the reflection process and help you make smarter, more rational decisions.

First published April 13, 2016, on Kevin Meyer’s blog.


About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.