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The ‘zen’ of Kaizen

Awakening today in a rather satori-al mood – the title of this blog post is what popped into my mind. Don’t ask me why or how but that’s what happened. I’m a stickler for etymological cleanliness – not in the sense that I’m always cleaning up my words after myself but that I like clear and clean concepts.

However, as I alluded previously about my satori-al disposition at waking time, I find myself essentially in the midst of a paradox – the paradox of Clean Play. There is no such thing as ‘Clean Play’ except perhaps in the mind. And it is to that mindful playfulness that I invite you.

If anything Kaizen is the putting on of a mindful attitude to one’s surroundings and systematically and continually improving specific streams of work and information flow all around you. And therein is the rub – It all sounds so booooring!!!

Clean Play…, remember Clean Play. A curious thing happens when one is attuned to the systematic tick tock – discontinuities begin to appear.

The way I see it, the truth of the matter is quite different – like true false. Or false true if you insist. One would think that – Systematics brings order out of chaos. It does no such thing. I think of Systematics as laying a thin sheet of knowing on a rippling chaotic ocean of unknowing. The knowing is only maintained by expending energy.

This thin sheet – the Systematic, is for us – a map through the unknowing, a steadying hand in the Chaotic. But my intuition tells me that we have the basic ingredients to be Chaotic riders rather than Systematic riders. That is if we learn the ropes of the Systematic correctly, you’d do much better setting it aside and riding the Chaotic. As you may well surmise, this transition is also vectored i.e. you can go from the Systematic to the Chaotic but there’s little of value in going from Chaotic to Systematic.

Clean Play folks… you’ve got to get to Clean Play.

Enjoy!!!

Coming off a tough tough project…

For the last four months, I’ve been part of a tough project – tough on multiple dimensions, beset by every sort of calamity that one can dream up (every day was an example of Murphy’s law in action). That’s a nice way of saying – don’t give me grief on a lack of updates for that reason. Well, not really -  blogging is therapeutic mostly.

But the point of this post is not to really go into the inanities of a project – it’s to place on the table the only free lunch in the world. So take from it what you will… Here’s what I learnt.

1. An unhappy client is not your fault, not the project’s fault.

Bang!! Front and center. Chances are that an unhappy client was unhappy long before you ever got there. In fact, unhappiness (both micro and macro) takes constant effort. It takes a whole lot of time and energy to be and remain unhappy. I’m not talking about the depressives or the manic-depressives but that class of people and organizations that are intent on getting there. An unhappy client is symptomatic of an unhappy culture or sub-culture of the firm and deeply unhappy ones are caught in a vortex – there is very little that one can do be it in through the project or as an individual to break the vortex. No measure of competency, delivery or solution can ever break the vortex – it has a life of its own. Like a demon. Such vortices don’t have technological solutions, project solutions or in some cases managerial solutions.

In nature, vortices dissipate because they encounter an environment capacitated to absorb the energy of the vortex. Vortices of sub-cultures ought to be dissipated by the larger culture of the firm. A vortex of culture within the firm cannot be dissipated inside the firm – these firms are dangerous to every thing around them and themselves. It is dissipated by the industry through the process of competition. And so on… Only competition, I believe, can break the vortex and this gets tricky at the team level but I see no other way to break the cycle. It’s something similar to what you might see on the Dog Whisperer where the energy of the pack is channeled into calming the dog that is freaking out.

2. Optimization is a mistake.

I love optimization. To me, it represents a curious blending of the platonic mathematical world and the real world – the world of the idea of the numeric colliding into the real where nothing of the sort exists. However, optimization (as is often sold to the business world) is first and foremost a terrible mistake. In a subset of these mistakes that businesses and firms make, it is the most important mistake that you need to make. Not in the sense that now that the firm has made it, walk away. No, once you’ve made the mistake of optimization, you’re ready to make the leap to the higher world of bigger mistakes. Such mistakes subside as you learn how to wield it properly.

However, most firms cannot deal with optimization. They (and by they I mean the people in the firm) are not able to deal with the intersection of the math and the real. They’re very content with their take on the real or other iterations on the real no matter how they’re being placed at a competitive disadvantage by those firms that not only invest in mastering optimization as a discipline but also as a way of approaching the business problem. Iterations on the real are reconceived processes, new technologies and the like. So most firms that take on the mistake of optimization treat it as a black box that keeps chugging away in the background telling them the “optimal” way to do things which passes through a gut-check filter and so it goes on… This is like buying a katana and using it for chopping vegetables.

Part of the issue with optimization is while there is an active movement to make supply chain a “C” level responsibility or at least have it on their radar – optimization (like statistics) is a nice to have. While the supply chain is an integrative activity of processes both inside and outside the firm, optimization is a quant backed way of executing the business (pun intended).

3. Plan – Do – Check – Act (PDCA)

While PDCA is quite important as far as continuous improvement goes and this simple concept underlies most of the continuous improvement methodologies out there, it has some relevance to the world of project delivery. For me, there has always been a question of which task do you start with: Is it Plan? Is it Check? or Does it even matter where you start? I now think that the right step to start with as far as project delivery / consulting projects go is to start with Check. The simple reason for that is that when you’re an external consultant, you’re essentially going by what you’re told. Often times, I find that there is a delta between what the client knows and what is actually present. The Check step is best visualized and not tabulated/reported. And its better to make it real-time in some way. Some people refer to this as analytics and that in my opinion is where any such project ought to start because it gives visibility of the changes that are going to happen or happening in execution. This has the added benefit of putting the client in the driver’s seat as you work on the engine while in motion.

About me

I am Chris Jacob Abraham and I live, work and blog from Newburgh, New York. I work for IBM as a Senior consultant in the Fab PowerOps group that works around the issue of detailed Fab (semiconductor fab) level scheduling on a continual basis. My erstwhile company ILOG was recently acquired by IBM and I've joined the Industry Solutions Group there.

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