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Kevin Meyer

Quality Insider

The Mindful Ohno

Be present at work to understand what’s truly important

Published: Thursday, January 22, 2015 - 14:00

Mindfulness has become all the rage in personal and professional leadership these days, which is good and bad. Understood and done right, it’s a powerful concept. As with most concepts, however, it’s also often misunderstood, and therefore sometimes maligned and even misapplied. In this way, mindfulness is somewhat similar to lean, which is also a powerful concept offering supporting tools that must be appropriately leveraged in conjunction with a system that includes people with brains (really!) Otherwise it often fails, and is therefore sometimes maligned.

Mindfulness is simply becoming aware; taking the time to slow down, look around, analyze context, and, based on that new awareness, improve. It isn’t just calming the mind, although that can be a key component. It isn’t prayer. It isn’t contemplation, dreaming, or getting lost in thought. It’s not dwelling on the past, or planning on the future, but rather being purposely present right here, right now, with what is truly important.

I first discovered the concept many years ago, during a time of intense personal and professional stress. I developed a habit of escaping to Hawaii on literally a couple hours’ notice, embracing quietude and solitude as a way to let my racing thoughts settle so the important ones could be analyzed. I was amazed at how some of my perspectives and opinions changed, how unexpectedly wrong they had been before, and how that newfound knowledge freed me to become calm and engaged.

Mindful meditation is one of many forms of meditation where you focus on awareness, usually by working to slow the torrent of the mind so that individual thoughts can be noticed, analyzed, and considered. Those new to the process are usually shocked at just how many thoughts are flowing through their heads and the distortions created both by (perhaps) skewed perspectives and the interaction with other thoughts. Therefore, it often comes as a surprise to learn just how difficult this form of meditation can be. As with lean, the process is especially powerful when, after considerable practice, the new knowledge and awareness is coupled with a framework to create and support change. The physiological changes in the brain created by meditation are rather astounding.

Mindful leadership starts to focus a bit more externally, in a questioning manner, but still with an awareness of the effect and influence of individual action in the present: What is the present situation? What am I listening to? Are my perspectives correct? What is the problem? What should I be working on? Why is my opinion what it is? Right here, right now.

One area in which I try to leverage this is through email. Colleagues know that I used to be (and when I fail, still am) a master of the long-winded, flaming email. Nowadays when someone pushes one of my buttons I try hard to take a step back. Why is the topic a hot button for me? Why do I have such a strong opinion? Is my opinion correct, or is my perspective skewed? Do I have all the data? Is it really an important enough topic to take a strong stand? And, finally, if it still is important, is there a better way to convey my opinion? I think I've improved, but admittedly I still struggle.

Taiichi Ohno is famous for sending students to the shop floor with instructions to just stand and observe—for at least a half-hour. Coincidentally, that’s about how long it takes for the mind to calm after some experience with meditation. Just observing is difficult. We want to jump to analysis and improvement, but as Ohno was trying to point out, first you must simply observe, becoming aware of the process and what is going on, which you probably didn’t notice when rushing to and fro on the factory floor. Only then can you truly see the process in the present moment, understand what’s important right now, how perspectives can be biased, and begin to formulate plans for improvement.

It starts with simple observation, whether it’s noticing the thoughts in your mind, your actions as a leader, or the process in which you’re involved. Perhaps that means observing at a restaurant while you’re dining, as I witnessed in Bangkok a couple years ago. Take the time to simply observe. You may be surprised at what you discover.

First published Jan. 13, 2015, 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.