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Harish Jose

Management

Kufu Eyes

Problem solving requires looking past the surface

Published: Monday, August 27, 2018 - 11:03

I came across an interesting phrase recently. I was reading Kozo Saito’s paper, “Hitozukuri and Monozukuri,” and I saw the phrase “kufu eyes.” Kufu is a Japanese word that means “to seek a way out of a dilemma.” This is very well explained in Daisetz T. Suzuki’s wonderful book, Zen and Japanese Culture (Princeton University Press, 1970). Suzuki talks about kufu in three sections of the book, and each time he adds a little more detail.

“Kufu is not just thinking with the head, but the state when the whole body is involved and applied to the solving of a problem,” says Suzuki.

 “Kufu means ‘employing oneself assiduously to discover the way to the objective,’” he continues. “One may say that this is literally groping in the dark, there is nothing definite indicated.... I am afraid this is as far as any master of Zen or swordsmanship can go with his disciples. He leads them until no more leading is possible, and the rest is left to their own devices. If it is a matter of intellection, the way to the goal may be ‘definitely’ prescribed.... The students must resort to something very much deeper than mere intellection—something which they cannot obtain from another.”

Elsewhere in the book, Suzuki says, ‘‘The term kufu is the most significant word used in connection with Zen and also in the fields of mental and spiritual discipline. Generally, it means ‘to seek the way out of a dilemma’ or ‘to struggle to pass through a blind alley.’ A dilemma or a blind alley may sound somewhat intellectual, but the fact is that this is where the intellect can go no further, having come to its limit, but an inner urge still pushes one somehow to go beyond. As the intellect is powerless, we may enlist the aid of the will; but mere will, however pressing, is unable to break through the impasse. The will is closer to fundamentals than the intellect, but it is still on the surface of consciousness. One must go deeper yet, but how? This how is kufu. No teaching, no help from the outside is of any use. The solution must come from the most inner part of oneself. One must keep knocking at the door until all that makes one feel an individual being crumbles away. That is, when the ego finally surrenders itself, it finds itself. Here is a newborn baby. Kufu is a sort of spiritual birth pang. The whole being is involved. There are physicians and psychologists who offer a synthetic medicinal substance to relieve one of this pang. But we must remember that, while man is partially mechanistic or biochemical, this does not by any means exhaust his being; he still retains something that can never be reached by medicine. This is where his spirituality lies, and it is kufu that finally wakes us to our spirituality.’’

In his paper, Saito talked about kufu eyes to explain the process of having a curious scientific mind. Kufu eyes look at the whole and use personal intuition rather than just the analytical thinking process. Kufu eyes push you to think further, perhaps through thought experiments, to truly understand the whole picture.

One interesting note I would like to make concerns the great American philosopher Daniel Dennett and his “intuition pumps.” An intuition pump is a thought experiment structured to allow the thinker to use his intuition to develop an answer to a problem. Just like a mechanical device, if you can model your thought in a thought experiment, you can push on different buttons and pull on different levers and see what happens.

With kufu eyes, you can observe to gain insight. Siato references about Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System, to explain the concept of kufu eyes further:
“Learning engineering and science is not enough,” Siato writes. “There is a third element: professional intuition, probably the most important, yet most difficult to master, but required for the engineering problem solving process. Taichi Ohno, one of the pioneers who developed Toyota Production System, once declared that the essence of TPS is to develop the well-trained ‘eyes’ that can see waste which is invisible to the untrained.”

Taiichi Ohno took the task of catching up to the American market when the Japanese worker was assumed to be only 1/8th as productive as his American counterpart. The most recent development in manufacturing at that time was the idea of mass manufacturing, which is essentially a push system that led to lots of inventory. Toyota could not afford to carry a lot of inventory. The thinking in those days was to combine similar equipment together and perform operations in isolation. Ohno rearranged the entire layout of the plant he was in charge of, so that the equipment was set to follow the process. The practice at that time was to have one operator manning one piece of equipment. Instead, Ohno assigned one operator to man multiple pieces equipment at a time. This led to autonomation or jidoka. To control the amount of parts produced, Ohno came up with the idea of kanban.

Looking back, Ohno definitely had to employ himself assiduously to discover the way to his objective. He could not just rely on his analytical mind; it was more complex than that. His thinking is clearly stated when he said that “efficiency must be improved at every step and at the same time, for the plant as a whole.” This is the big picture view that is needed in kufu.

Saito combines the different ideas of total-unit, dedication to the team, holistic view, dialectic approach, and nonlinear thinking to explain kufu. Logic and words have limits.

I am inspired by the phrase “kufu eyes.” To me, it means looking outward and inward, looking at the big picture, thinking inside and outside of the box, and always pushing to go to the edge of a problem. It means looking with the determination to gain insight. It also means not falling for status quo, and to always improve. It means to go slowly but deliberately. It means to not stop until you have solved the problem. And it also means to not stop there but keep on improving.

This is further explained by Suzuki:
“This may be difficult, but when you go on exercising kufu toward the subject, you will after some time come to find this state of mind exercising kufu toward the subject, you will after some time come to find this state of mind actualized without noticing each step of progress. Nothing, however, can be accomplished hurriedly.”

I will finish with a wonderful lesson from Suzuki’s book:
“When we tie a cat, being afraid of its catching a bird, it keeps on struggling for freedom. But train the cat so that it would not mind the presence of a bird. The animal is now free and can go anywhere it likes. In a similar way, when the mind is tied up, it feels inhibited in every move it makes, and nothing will be accomplished with any sense of spontaneity. Not only that, the work itself will be of a poor quality, or it may not be finished at all.”

Always keep on learning...

First published July 4, 2018, on Harish’s Notebook blog.

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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 (U.S.), 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. Harish publishes frequently on his blog harishnotebook. He can be reached on LinkedIn.