On Resilience

Marcus AureliusA theme that has been trending for several years is that of resilience, and it’s especially topical in times of major events (think COVID-19). But it’s also of huge daily relevance in terms of being resilient when trying to change (by which I mean improve) a ‘big hairy’ system.

I’ve watched several talks on resilience1 (and coping with uncertainty) and dug around a bit for key insights…and I reflect that much of what has been learned (through considerable modern research) was apparently understood a couple of millennia back by the Greeks and Romans.

I’m referring to (what I consider to be) the highly useful Hellenistic school of Philosophy known as Stoicism2. I think that there’s a great deal of value that the ‘individual’ can gain across all walks of their life from understanding the basics. You might be surprised at how much of it you already know3.

What’s it all about?

The foundational idea within Stoicism is that we should live our lives according to (what we might refer to as) ‘nature’.

And looking at us as humans within nature, two points are relevant:

  • we are highly social animals; and
  • we are capable of reason.

…and, to a Stoic, it follows that the best kind of life is the application of reason to improve social living.

I like this. It’s succinct and highly appealing.

Scholars refer to ‘two pillars’ of Stoicism:

  • The dichotomy of control; and
  • The cardinal values

The Dichotomy of Control

Do you have a problemThe Greeks and Romans had a most useful concept – the goddess of Luck/ Fortune.

She represented life’s capriciousness – which could bring good or bad luck, where this is down to chance.

The point was that luck/fortune is outside of you.

And so, to the idea of what you can and cannot control4…and, importantly, how this is of enormous use to us in dealing with what goes on ‘in our heads’.

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; Not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Epictetus)

You’ve likely seen this logic before, whatever your tradition (Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism,….).

Some thoughts to expand upon:

  • Life is a dynamic and spatial ‘game’:
    • Dynamic – the now: We have no control over what has happened in the past, nor most of what may or may not be ahead
    • Spatial – the here: we have no control over that which is happening elsewhere without our knowledge (including in other people’s heads!)

We are just working on what is before us and known to us5.


  • In every moment of every situation:
    • Whatever we can do, then a Stoic would do it rather than worry
    • Whatever we can’t, then a Stoic would reason not to worry. It is what it is.

  • We may not be able to control our thoughts and feelings (which stem from our primitive brain), but we do have the power (if we so choose) over our responses to them.

To clarify: Stoicism isn’t about suppressing our emotions. It’s about recognizing them, reflecting upon them, and redirecting them for our future good.

“Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet. Just say to it: hold on a moment, let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.” (Epictetus)


  •  Be kind to ourselves: We should ‘forgive’ ourselves for decisions that we’ve already made. They’ve been and gone – out of our control. It is what it is.

  • We have the gift of thinking to the future and attempting to influence it, but we do not control it.

We should be concerned with our intentions and efforts, not with the outcomes.

 “Do not attach your self-esteem to the outcome, only attach it to what’s under your control – to your attempt.” (Cicero)


  • To be able to think about control in this way requires an initial understanding (such as the above) and then constant practice. We will never be perfect at it (we are human), but we can always get better.

As Dr Lucy Hone puts it1:

 “Resilient people ‘get’ that ‘shit happens’, and that suffering is part of life….and knowing this stops them feeling discriminated against when the tough times come.”

An appreciation of control isn’t a magic pill, just a way of thinking that will help us best survive and thrive (both physically and mentally).

The Cardinal Values

So, if we understand the difference between what we can control, and what we can’t, this raises another question: How should we act/ respond to the things we can control?

The Stoics identified four cardinal values to guide us:

  1. Practical wisdom: the knowledge of what is and isn’t good for you

“Resilient people ask themselves ‘is what I’m doing helping or harming me?’” (Dr Lucy Hone1)

  1. Courage (physical and moral): to stand up and do the right thing
  2. Temperance (or, in today’s language, moderation): do things in the right measure (not over or under do)
  3. Justice: which tells us what the right thing is (in interacting with others)

The Stoics considered justice to be the most important of the virtues. Justice wasn’t about a narrow definition of lawfulness. It was about living together in society:

“Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings.” (Epictetus)

And on to Serenity

Putting the ‘two pillars’ together gives us this rather nice, and simple, Venn diagram:

What you should focus on

“Resilient people are good at choosing carefully where to focus their attentions:

    • Appraising the situation; and then
    • Focus on the things that they can change; and
    • Accept the things that they can’t” (Dr Lucy Hone1)

If you can limit yourself to focusing on what you can control and then act in a way that has true meaning (for you, for society) then you are highly likely to live a calm life.

Not calm, as in leisurely. Your life might be incredibly busy!

Rather, an inner calm – what the Stoics referred to as serenity.

The goal is not to reach perfection, it’s just to be the best that you can be….and better than you were yesterday.

But there are obstacles in my way!

Things will always happen that you don’t want to happen, but you can use them to think about how to move forward because of it.

You may set out in one direction and become obstructed, but this then allows you to work on making progress in alternative direction(s).

‘Inside every obstacle is a chance to improve your condition’ (The Daily Stoic)

The obstacle in the path is the path.

A closing thought

When it comes to resilience, one might see Stoicism as the practical philosophy of how to be resilient. It is said to be practical because Stoicism is about our actions, not our words.

Resilience isn’t a fixed trait (that some do or don’t have). Rather, it requires us to practise with some very ordinary (i.e. do-able) processes.

It’s not always easy to ‘think’ in these ways, but it does help!

Footnotes:

Caveat: The above is written to help me and others who can help themselves (albeit with the application of effort).  It’s not ‘the answer’ for everything and everyone. I don’t wish to trivialise mental health issues that some may have. I’m not a clinical psychologist. I’m not suggesting that people with deeper problems can just ‘help themselves out of it’ on their own.

1. Resilience: Here’s a link to an extremely powerful talk in respect of resilience The three secrets of resilient people, by Dr Lucy Hone. You will likely see that the three ‘secrets’ (which I have slotted into my post above) could almost have been picked out of a Stoic’s ancient life journal.

2. The word ‘Stoic’, as distinct from Stoicism: The word ‘stoic’ has entered the modern English language as meaning ‘someone that doesn’t show their emotions’ (ref. the very British phrase of a ‘stiff upper lip’). However, this modern and simplistic translation isn’t what Stoicism is about. Rather, it’s misleading.

3. Why do we seem to know so much about Stoicism?: The Philosophy of Stoicism was born in Athens, Greece around the 3rd Century B.C. by Zeno. It was then adopted by the Romans (ref. Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius). It got replaced by Christianity around the 4th Century A.D. but many of its ideas were subsumed into the Christian writings.

Many well-known/ influential people have studied Stoicism over the years and have used it as a ‘way of life’ (kings, presidents, economists, artists, writers…) Some of the more recent Philosophers have used Stoicism as a basis for their ideas.

If you want to know more, here’s a nice 18 min. TEDx Athens talk by Massimo Pigliucci on Stoicism. Some of my summary of Stoicism above comes from this talk. If you’re interested then there are some interesting websites (The Daily Stoic and How to be a Stoic)

4. “No control-ness”: Our personal lack of control in the here-and-now covers a vast (infinite) expanse! From the gargantuan down to the miniscule. I had some fun putting together a graphic that (hopefully) paints this point:

No control spectrum

* The reference to farting is in honour of the highly practical 16th century philosopher Montaigne. He considered that Plato (and others) had done the ‘heavy lifting’ on the big stuff but had missed out pondering the important small stuff, to be found in our everyday lives (including farting).

Clarification: There’s no science to my spectrum. It’s just a device to assist my narrative.

5. You can likely see that the modern term of ‘mindfulness’ fits here, where this has been defined as the psychological process of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment” (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness)

6. The main image at the top of this post is of a statue of the Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

7. Clarification: Stoicism is not a religion, and we are not being told (or even asked) to slavishly follow in their footsteps. Here’s a fantastic quote from Seneca in this regard:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, Seneca)

Yin and Yang

Yin Yang blankYou’ll probably be familiar with the ‘Yin – Yang’ symbol – a circle that is half black and half white, with a black and a white dot in each of the opposing ‘tear drop shaped’ halves.

So, where does it come from and what does it mean?1

As I understand it, the symbol can be traced back to ancient China and its meaning is utilised in the Eastern Philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism.

The symbol represents the idea that the universe, and what lies within, is governed by duality – sets of two opposing and yet complimentary forces.

These forces are not total opposites – they are relative to each other, two sides of the same coin. They don’t, and can’t, exist on their own. They are inter-related parts of a bigger whole.

Some examples:

  • Light and dark
  • Alive, and not2
  • Masculine and feminine
  • Good and bad
  • Asleep and awake
  • Hot and cold
  • Rest and movement
  • Front and back
  • …and we could keep on going!

Further, the two dots ‘within’ each half represent the idea that everything contains the seed of its opposite.

Given this duality, we are best to learn from both the Yin and the Yang, and their inter-relatedness3.

Context

Why am I writing this post? Well, I feel the need to point out – and open up – what I see as a duality.

Over the years I’ve been very aware of how many (most?) organisations, and their management systems, have dwelt on ‘the individual’:

  • ‘Here’s your target’ and ‘Here’s your score’
  • ‘Well done, here’s a pat on the back’ or ‘Must try harder’
  • ‘Here are your values…and the attitude you must adopt’
  • ‘It’s your personal responsibility to succeed and progress’
  • ‘Do the right thing!’
  • …and on and on

Further, much of the work of Deming, Seddon and other giants of mine has been to help organisations move away from focusing on (and usually ‘judging’) the individual and, instead, to work on the system that the individual is working within.

Some classic quotes fit here:

“95% of the reasons for failure to meet customer expectations are related to the deficiencies in the system rather than the employee…the role of management is to change the process rather than badgering individuals to do better.” (Deming)

“People’s behaviour is a product of the system. It is only by changing the system that we can expect a change in their behaviour.” (Seddon)

“A bad system beats a good person every time.” (Deming)

It’s the system, stupid!” (Seddon)

I strongly agree with the messages within the above quotes (and the accompanying bodies of work). However, I consider that we need to retain a focus on the individual, as well as massively working on the environment in which ’we’ work. But such a focus would be to help the individual rather than judge them.

This isn’t a criticism of Deming, Seddon etc. I expect that they would agree.

Two ‘angles’ interest me in this regard:

‘Individual A’ that comes to believe that, if it’s about ‘the system’, then it’s not really ‘their’ problem…so they’ll sit back and wait for ‘others’ (usually up the hierarchy) to ‘solve’ the system; and conversely

‘Individual B’ that really grasps that it’s about the system; takes a huge responsibility (burden) on their shoulders to ‘move’ the system; and then experiences great stress (and potentially depression) from limited successes.

So I’d like to bring it all back to a duality – the individual and the environment they are in.

The Yin – Our environment:

Yin halfI run a 2-day course based around Deming’s theory of profound knowledge. The psychology part includes some powerful considerations in respect of social psychology.

We discuss three of the classic experiments regarding the power of ‘being in a world of others’ (i.e. our environments):

  • Solomon Asch’s 1951 ‘peer pressure’ experiment on an individual’s strong urge to conform (fit in) with those around them, where this power can be stronger than their personal values or basic perceptions.
  • Stanley Milgram’s 1963 behavioural study on Obedience to Authority, where people do what they are told to, even where this conflicts with their personal values.
  • Philip Zimbardo’s 1972 ‘Stanford Prison’ experiment, where the existence (or not) of power led people to adopt abusive (or submissive) behaviours.

The reason for discussing these (in)famous experiments is to open people’s eyes to the huge power of the environment that people are working (and living) within, and that, if we work on getting our environment(s)4 ‘right’ then great things can happen5….and conversely, if we get it wrong, we end up fighting each other for survival.

However, the environment is only part of the picture. It is made up of individuals within, capable of making choices

It must be, else why would the system be ‘as it is’…and how could it be changed?

The Yang – Us as individuals:

Yang halfA (social) environment is made up of individuals.

Some of the nature of that environment is because of how individuals behave within it. Some of it comes from outside forces.

I think that it’s worth constantly thinking about, and working on, the things that ‘I’ (i.e. the individual) can control…and calmly coping with the things that I cannot.

  • I know that there are some huge system constraints as to why the current system(s) work as they do.
  • I know that they won’t change overnight, just because I ‘pointed them out’ or even because I (and others) tried to do something about them.

In terms of my role within:

  • I can choose to think about and (try to) modify my actions and behaviours
  • I can choose to ponder how to go about this
  • I can choose to persevere, or to pivot – to try different strategies and tactics as I learn what doesn’t seem to work.
  • I can choose my attitude about what is before me, and what to do about it.

Attempting to do this is not easy (it takes much thought and constant practice) but it is worthwhile (with meaning).

As an aside: If you want to know more about achieving meaningful change of a system, then you might want to read about normative change.

On Meaning

Victor FranklOne of the most renowned books written which considers, in part, the subject of attitude is Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s search for meaning’.

The first half of the book describes his terrible experiences as a prisoner spanning three years across four Nazi concentration camps. To put it mildly, it’s not pleasant BUT it is a hugely important piece of work. At his liberation in 1945 all but one of his close family members had died/ been killed.

He pondered much on what could be learned from his experiences. Who had survived? Who had not? And perhaps why? And, in his writings, he provided us with much to contemplate:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

But why would we choose one way over another?

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails…gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.

It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.

Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities …that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”

What about trying to ignore our circumstances? Frankl reflects on many who took this approach:

“A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts…

…but in robing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger…instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength…they preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past.

Life for such people became meaningless.”

And, sadly, Frankl’s experience was that those who came to a point without meaning gave up living soon after.

Thankfully, our lives don’t come even close to that of Frankl’s. This fact makes his reflections even more powerful. If lessons on meaning and attitude apply even in a ‘hell on earth’ then they most certainly apply to our ‘ordinary lives’.

Frankl quotes the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his summing up:

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” and

“That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

In short:

  • be clear on meaning (what is your longer-term, valuable-to-society, purpose?)
  • work through the constant challenges that you most certainly will encounter on the way
  • If you move onwards ‘knowing why’, then you can use this to ‘keep yourself grounded’ on the bumpy journey ahead.

Note: This line of thinking opens a related topic, which I hope to write about in a follow-up post in respect of resilience. It’s all very well ‘telling ourselves’ to be resilient, but some help in being so might be useful.

 Back to that duality:

B=fPEGoing back to one of the early social psychologists, Kurt Lewin, we find that he clearly saw the duality. He expressed it as a simple equation:

‘Behaviour is a function of the person in their environment.’

The equation has two variables: you, and your environment. One doesn’t exist without the other.

Yes, the environment can have a HUGE influence on you and I…but there is a capability within us (the individual) to choose (to a degree) what we think, and do, about it.

Further, within every individual is the seed of their environment influencing them and within every (social) environment there is the seed of the individual able to influence it right back!

Footnotes:

1. Yin and Yang explanation: Here’s a nice short 4 min. animated video that explains at a deeper level: Yin & Yang TED Ed video by John Bellaimey

2. Alive, and not: I’ve deliberately not written ‘life and death’ because the duality is much more than this. There was also a HUGE period of time (circa. 4 billion years) that I wasn’t alive before I was born.

3. Reductionism vs. Synthesis: The underlying message within the Yin and Yang sits very well with Systems Thinking and the truth that reducing a system into its parts will give a limited and limiting view.

4. Environments: We live within multiple, often overlapping, social environments. Our home life, our work life, our communities and our wider society.

5. Deming’s ’14 Points for Management’ are all about creating the right environment for an organisation to thrive.

Fight for Connection

When listening, it is extremely easy (and perhaps innate?) for us to look for, and find, ‘disconnects’. I know it is for me.

What do I mean by a disconnect? Some examples might be when we react to/ take issue with/ pick holes in/ disagree with what (we think) we are hearing1.

There will always be opportunities to find disconnects if we are looking for them.

Interactions:

Taking a simple view of a person-to-person interaction, we might consider four parts to each exchange within:

Communication

1. Intent: The person speaking has some intent (I’ll come back to this below).

2. Spoken: They will then attempt to ‘encode’ that intent into a form of words. However:

  • their success in doing so will be heavily reliant on the person’s skill with language; and even then…
  • a short, simple set of words can never accurately translate our full intent, even by the best orators amongst us.

It’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that, in the midst of a conversation, we don’t exactly give each other much time to ‘pick’ our words – and even less of a chance to go back over them to reframe or redact them.

3. Heard: The listener’s task is to hear the words being spoken to them. This would seem to be a simple job…and yet I expect most of you will probably agree with me that it’s not2.

The complexity of the ‘hearing’ task moves up several gears when there are many people involved in the conversation.

4. Interpretation: The listener will then attempt to ‘decode’ what they heard into what they think about it. In doing so, they can’t help but be ‘waylaid’ by lots of thoughts ‘flying around’ their heads (experiences, assumptions, biases, wants…).

Disconnections:

It’s extremely easy for the listener, at the end of these four parts of an exchange, to respond with something along the lines of “But I disagree…”

however, what am I disagreeing with?

Is it:

  • the intent?
  • how it was spoken?
  • how I heard it? or
  • how I interpreted it?

These are very different things!

On intent:

Of the four pieces in the exchange, it is often (usual?) that the intent is the least of the problem!

We can look at intent in two ways:

a) if the underlying intent is constructive, then we should be trying to bring this out and expand upon (rather than puncture) it; or

b) if there is some issue with the intent, then we should want to use the most effective way to surface and alter this, where this would be to help (invite?) the originator to do this for themselves.

I’d suggest that a) is the norm. People, in general, want to improve situations. This fits with the belief of the hugely respected psychologist Carl Rogers3 that people are, in their essence, healthy and good.

Turning to b): One of the fundamental principles within the work of Rogers is that of ‘Unconditional positive regard’, which is the concept of accepting and supporting a person regardless of what they say or do4.

A key point within Rogers’ life work is that we are all a continual work-in-progress, in “a constant state of becoming” and, as such, with greater acceptance and less unhealthy pressure/ criticism, we (you and I) are highly capable of growing and realising our potential.

To summarise: we would serve ourselves well to frame all interactions (whether at home, work or in our wider society) by assuming that the ‘other party’ has good intentions, or (if not in this moment) would want to have.

A constant battle

FightIt feels rather glib to have written the above (i.e. ‘just work with everyone unconditionally and everything will work out’) because it’s easier said than done. We are human after all.

And so, to the title of this post – a ‘fight for connection’.

It is easy to find, and widen, disconnects.

Conversely, it is a constant battle (if we so choose to fight it) to attempt to create, and remain in, connection.

A first step might be an attempt to attune ourselves to noticing when disconnects are happening, and to ponder what’s going on…and to think about how we might connect instead.

We (by which I really mean ‘I’) will fail regularly (and probably spectacularly) but each connection ‘won’ feels good!

We need to constantly fight for connection (in our work and private lives), rather than allow the disconnections to appear, fester and grow.

A caveat

A desire for connection should not trump authenticity. We should always choose authenticity over pretending to be someone we are not.

Connection requires both parties to fight for it. If one side refuses to connect, despite herculean attempts by the other, then sometimes this will mean ‘walking away’.

Footnotes

1. If you are in a face-to-face interaction, the disconnect may also come from and/or be exaggerated by what (you think) you are seeing e.g. some accompanying body language

2. On hearing: I had a job some years back that involved working in the Royal Courts of Justice in London. We would spend each day in Court and then the evening in Chambers preparing for the next day. We had the benefit of the day’s full transcript (i.e. written record) to work with. I was often amazed, when searching through the transcript, at:

a) what I thought had been said in Court during the day, but had not, and

b) what had been said but that I’d missed!

The differences were often quite subtle, and yet incredibly important.

3. Carl Rogers is a giant that I have yet to write about. I hope to fill this gaping hole soon. However, for the purposes of this bog, he was a giant within the field of psychology, with his person-centric (humanistic) approach.

Note: I am a novice when it comes to the work of Carl Rogers and so I’ve attempted to ‘go gently’ on what I’ve written so that I don’t butcher it too badly :).

4. This doesn’t mean accepting or ignoring their words and deeds. It means to accept the person underneath – and therefore that it is worth investing in helping them.

5. Source/ credit: I’ve been ‘working from home’ in COVID-19 lockdown for the last four weeks and this has given me the opportunity to watch a course on Udemy called ‘The Fundamentals of Skilled Helping and Problem Management’ with Gerard Egan and Kain Ramsay. This post is a write-up of a key reflection.

Coming out of lock-down with eyes wide open

Uniteagainstcovid19There’s a famous quote that goes something like

“those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

In these COVID-19 days, and with the pressure from many an observer for governments to relax their lock-down measures, I think that we would do well to cast our eyes back to the 1918 – 1920* flu epidemic to see what we might find that strikes us as interesting.

* I’ve written ‘1918 – 1920’ rather than the usual shorthand of the ‘1918 epidemic’ just to point out that it lasted nearly three years! And I’d rather we did really sensible things so that it didn’t last anything like that long this time around.

I know that we live in different times and so comparisons should be done very carefully and with a good few caveats, but I suspect that many of the fundamentals remain the same (such as ease of transmission and the risk of exponential growth).

I found the Wikipedia entry on the ‘Spanish Flu’ to be an interesting read. One of the graphs within really stood out at me. It shows the mortality rate over time in the UK:

Spanish Flu

You can see that the UK endured three waves, with the second wave being extremely deadly as compared to the first (which was really bad anyway).

We can imagine that at the end of July 1918 (after the first wave) people thought they’d beaten the virus and so could go back to normal. We can also imagine that they might have thought the same in January 1919 (after the second wave).

Here’s a picture of New Zealand’s cases ‘over time’ as at 17th April 2020 (taken from the excellent ‘The Spinoff’ site):

17.4.20 Covid 19 NZ

We can look at this graph and be very encouraged by what we are seeing. However, we still have cases emerging even though we’ve been in a ‘Level 4’ lock-down for over three weeks.

Here’s the graph again, but with a really positive spin:

COVID Positive view

…and here’s the graph with an alternate ‘realism’ point of view:

COVID realism view

If we apply the ‘three waves of Spanish Flu’ graph learning onto our current graph you can see why we should take GREAT care about when to exit a ‘Level 4’ lock-down, and how (even then) we shouldn’t let things slip.

If we go too soon and/or we relax too far, what we’ve endured to date (socially and economically) might have been all in vain.

In short: Please don’t put pressure on our government to move out of ‘Level 4’ too soon, and when we do move down to ‘Level 3’, please follow the rules so we don’t go backwards.

And to our government: Please keep on listening to the experts over politically and capitalistically motivated parties. Thank you!

The blossoming of the ‘essential worker’ in the public conscience.

Tooth-FairyIn this time of ‘Covid-19’ and the wonderful blossoming of the ‘essential worker’ into the public conscience, I recall a post I wrote some 5 years back that (I believe) weirdly happens to fit oh-so-well.

We could have some very different conversations going
forward….or not.

Link: Social workers, Sociopaths and Politicians. (Oct, 2015)

I’m not claiming my writings provide the answers, just (hopefully) some rather important ‘food for thought’.

Note: The image is of the tooth-fairy, who has been deemed an essential worker here in New Zealand.

Gemba Walking: A ‘how to’ guide

Gemba basicsThis is a quick guide I wrote to explain: what is meant by ‘Gemba walking’; who should do this and why; and how to go about doing them (regularly!).

It is a detailed follow-up to an introductory post I wrote some five years ago (called ‘Meet the process’).

The What:

‘Gemba’ is a Japanese word meaning ‘the actual place’.

In service organisations1, this is likely to mean the front line, where the value is (or should be) created for the customer.

Gemba can be thought of as four actions:

  • Go to the actual work place;
  • See the actual work in process;
  • Observe what is happening; and
  • Collect the actual data.

It is fundamentally about working with facts (evidence) obtained in the work, rather than discussing opinions derived away from the work.

A Gemba walk would be to follow an initial customer demand being placed on the system all the way through to its conclusion (i.e. the proper resolution of the customer’s need) and observing (in detail2) everything that happens in between.

The Who and Why:

Anyone and everyone in a management position3 (all the way up to the CEO and the board) should be regularly going to the Gemba, to find out what happens and why.

“Most leaders’ assumptions about what is happening on a day-to-day basis really don’t align with what is actually taking place!” [Michael Bremer].

Put simply, managers should be managing based on what is actually happening. To go to the Gemba and really look is to open one’s eyes to reality!

The need for regularity in Gemba walking is that:

  • it takes time for those in hierarchical positions to establish trust with those working at the front line (such that the people believe you are there to help, rather than judge, them);
  • there is great variety within customer demands and, in order to understand this, you need to observe many different customers; and
  • if changes are being made (as is nearly always the case), you need to be going back to see the effect (i.e. is it better? worse? no different?)

The How

The following is meant as a generic guide:

Create the ability to visit the work – talk with the site management, and whomever will be supervising on that day. Set them at their ease as to why you want to visit.

Once there, understand what customer demands are being handled.

Engineer your ability to (respectfully5) sit alongside employees who will be handling customer demands.

Introduce yourself to the employee – explain what you are wanting to do, and why. Set them at their ease. Discuss that you are interested in understanding:

  • what the customer is asking for and/or needs – and why;
  • how the organisational system responds; and
  • what makes it hard (or impossible) for the employee to be able to help the customer

Listen and observe – take good clear notes.

Don’t interfere in the work – no tinkering or attempts at instructing/ advising/coaching. Let it happen as if you hadn’t been there.

Talk to the employee after the customer interaction has ended (perhaps walk through what you observed, asking any clarifying questions6) – demonstrate that you have not been making judgements about them.

Provide the opportunity for the employee to reflect on the customer interaction – help them think about the customer purpose and how the organisation responded.

Summarise your key findings.

Repeat until you see patterns in your findings.

Discuss your findings with site management such that they are pleased you came and would welcome you again.

Do something about what you found! (though see clarification 4 below).

Clarification 1: ‘Meet the process’ vs. ‘Meet the people’

Senior Managers may consider that they regularly go out to sites and that, in doing this, they are already ‘going to the Gemba’. However, there is a huge difference between going to sites to:

  • meet the people; and
  • encounter what’s actually happening

A typical management site visit would be to meet people when they aren’t dealing with customers, and ask these people questions along the lines of ‘how are things going?’

This is a very poor, and typically misleading, approach to understanding the work.

Conversely, if managers sit with people whilst they perform the work, the meeting between manager and worker is a healthy by-product. It is also more likely to allow ‘conversations between equals’ (i.e. remove hierarchy as a barrier).

Clarification 2: Mindset

The point of Gemba Walking is to find things to improve, NOT to hope that all is working according to expectations.

The mindset is to look for opportunities for improvement. It is completely unrealistic to suppose that everything is going wonderfully. It won’t be. Rather than being disappointed that all is not going as desired and/or as ‘instructed’, be thankful that you’ve found out what’s actually happening and can now facilitate doing something useful about this.

Clarification 3: Surveys aren’t ‘in the work’

You can’t understand how the work works (or why it is like this) from performing surveys. You can (perhaps) gain some idea of the outcomes that the work created from surveying people afterwards but even this is likely to be limited, biased and muted (Ref. my earlier posts on ‘Net Promoter Score’).

The place to understand is in the work.

Clarification 4: Making improvements

When you go to the Gemba you will notice lots of things – many (most) that have been hidden from you.

You may want to rush off and make changes! However, if you act in this way:

  • you will likely be swamped with things to do;
  • you will have taken ownership of them (and away from the people in the work); and
  • you risk acting in a component (rather than systemic) way

For each thing you notice, the need is to work with the people to ascertain:

  • what the people can own – and your role is to help them develop the capability to improve their own work (and how they would know if it is an improvement); and
  • what is systemic and therefore out of their direct control – and your role is to champion the bigger changes for them.

Footnotes

1. In Manufacturing, Gemba is likely to mean the factory floor.

2. Re. in detail: “It should take you [Management] hours to walk 100 metres each time you enter the factory [i.e. the work place]. If it takes you no time at all…that means no one is relying on you.”[Taiichi Ohno]

3. Re. regularity: If you are sat in a management meeting and aren’t regularly going to the Gemba, then what on earth are you talking about?!

4. The word Gemba: Another (and perhaps more correct) way to refer to what is being meant when we use the word ‘Gemba’ is (as I understand it) Genchi Genbutsu – meaning ‘the real location, the real thing’.

5. You will need to understand the nature of the customer interaction and what is most appropriate. There is a difference between listening to a telephone call and observing a face-to-face meeting. The need is to be able to see and understand what happens without getting in the way/ affecting the interaction.

6. All your questions should be about ‘why’ and not about ‘who’.

Autonomy Support

Tree of handsOver my years of reading and experiential learning, I’ve understood that there are three fundamental elements relevant to a human being’s psychological well-being1:

  • Competency;
  • Autonomy; and
  • Relatedness

Competency (‘sense of efficacy’) refers to our need to produce desirable outcomes; to be effective whilst experiencing an agreeable level of challenge in doing so; and to experience mastery. Basically, we want to be good at stuff, and we like getting better at it.

Autonomy (‘sense of volition’) refers to our need to feel ownership of our actions; to perceive that we have choices and can self-determine what to do and/or how to do it. As per my previous post (The comedy of…), the opposite of autonomy is control. Put simply, autonomy is the freedom to decide for yourself.

Relatedness (‘sense of caring relationships’) refers to our need to feel connected with others; to care about, and be cared about by, others without ulterior motives.

Together, these three are what makes life meaningful. It follows that they are necessary for meaningful work to occur and should therefore be front-and-centre for anyone (and everyone) trying to design an effective management system.

  • If you get this right, then just wow, what a place to work!
  • If you get it wrong… no prizes for guessing what that might look like.

I want to focus this post in on the autonomy piece, and how those in management positions can (and should) interact:

What’s so good about this ‘autonomy’ malarkey?

Edward Deci writes that:

When autonomous, people are fully willing to do what they are doing, and they embrace the activity with a sense of interest and commitment. Their actions emanate from their true sense of self, so they are being authentic.”

Autonomy fuels growth and health, because it allows people to experience themselves as themselves, as the initiator of their own actions. The person who feels competent and autonomous, who directs his or her own life, is immeasurably better off than a person who does not.”

Now that’s going to be a powerful force if we can create the conditions for it to occur!

“The key to whether people are living autonomously is whether they feel, deep within themselves, that their actions are their own choice…The main thing about meaningful choice is that it engenders willingness.”

I should note that there are whole bodies of research performed over decades that powerfully back these statements up.

Being in a ‘one up’ position

Deci uses the ‘one up’ language to refer to a person having a role ‘one up’ a hierarchy in respect of another. It applies across many situations, including:

  • a parent/ guardian to a child;
  • a teacher to a student;
  • a manager to a direct report; and
  • a ‘case manager’ to a client

I’m particularly interested in the last scenario. There are heaps of public sector roles in which someone in (what can generically be referred to as) a case management position has the goal of assisting their client to get to, and stay in, a much better place.

Examples include:

  • a probation/corrections officer with a prisoner
  • a nurse/medical worker with a patient
  • social workers and benefits officers with their clients
  • ….and on and on and on

A ‘one up’ working with their client

A conventional approach to case management is often one of control. It starts with a prescription (“I’m the expert here – this is what’s needed”) and then direction (“and therefore this is what you need to do”).

Deci writes that there are two potential responses to control – compliance or defiance.

The problem with compliance is that the person isn’t actually doing it for themselves, they are ‘going through the motions’. Any outcome is most likely to be superficial, short-lived and requiring of continual (and potentially escalating) maintenance.

..and the (rather obvious) problem with defiance is that you’ve got them running in the wrong direction!

“Compliance produces change that is not likely to be maintained, and defiance blocks change in the first place.”

There are many people out there that distinctly dislike attempting to control others and go in the other direction of permissiveness – i.e. letting people ‘get away with [whatever they want]’. This isn’t healthy – for the client, the system or society. There is a need for a degree of structure, with limits and consequences.

Control spectrum 1

The risks2 of operating anywhere on the control spectrum include: undesirable and/or ineffective behaviours; a lack of personal responsibility; and the creation of dependency (on the system).

Introducing the concept of ‘Autonomy Support’

Neither control nor permissiveness are what’s needed for people/clients to achieve meaningful and sustained outcomes. Instead, we need to adopt a totally new orientation that is perpendicular to (i.e. removed from) the control spectrum.

Deci introduces:

Autonomy Support [as] a personal orientation you take toward other people.

It requires being able to take their perspective – being able to see the world as they see it. It thus allows you to understand why they want what they want and why they do what they do.

As an autonomy supportive [Case Manager], you would be building an alliance with your [Client] and you would engage new situations from that perspective.”

Put simply, Autonomy Support starts from the position that we ‘get’ that a person’s autonomy is key, and therefore our role is to support (nurture, enable, and enhance) a client’s ability to ‘work it out and/or do it for themselves’. This might take some up-front time and effort, but it is undeniably worthwhile.

Control spectrum 2

Right, so that sounds lovely, but how do we go about it?!

How to promote autonomy

The following diagram is my summary of the key points from Deci’s work, which I’ll then attempt to explain and open up. It represents the dynamic collaboration between two people (the person and a ‘one-up’):

Autonomy Support from Paint

The two prominent points are that:

  • The most important role of the ‘one up’ is to fully and continually understand (the situation, the context, the immediate and emergent needs, what really matters and so on); and
  • most important for the person/client is to feel like they are in control (autonomous), and this will be achieved through the ‘one up’ providing them with real and meaningful choice.

…but, as you can see, there’s more to it than this. Taking each piece in turn:

Understanding: “to relate to others as human beings, as active agents worthy of support, rather than as objects to be manipulated…It begins with listening openly.”

Put another way, if we don’t really understand what’s going on, how on earth can we expect to help them get to where they need to be? If we merely assume, judge and cajole, we will most likely make matters (much) worse.

Knowledge: This point refers to the person’s/client’s knowledge. If we are going to provide them with choice, then it is our responsibility to ensure they have the necessary knowledge to reasonably decide. It would be unfair not to do so!

Choice: This is perhaps the central point but there are some clarifications to be made:

  • In some situations, we may not be able to allow choice in the ‘what’. If this is the case, we should turn to providing choice about the ‘how’ to go about the what.
  • Sometimes the offering of choice isn’t appropriate…HOWEVER, we need to be very careful that we haven’t conveniently ‘presumed’ this simply to control.

Deci notes that a usual critique is that ‘[my person/client] doesn’t want the choice – they want to be told what to do’. He goes on to write that:

“If [this is true] it is because people have been pushed to that point by being overly controlled in the past.

If you control people enough, they may begin to act is if they want to be controlled. [This is] a self-protection strategy…

People adapt to being controlled and act as if they don’t want the very thing that is integral to their nature – namely, the opportunity to be autonomous. They probably fear that they will be evaluated – perhaps even punished – if they make the ‘wrong’ choice. And they may well be.

Being autonomy supportive can be very difficult, especially with people who are accustomed to being controlled…we have to be patient…to work with [them] to reawaken what is basic to their nature and what will almost surely lead to more positive results.”

Limits: Remembering that we aren’t about permissiveness, we will need to be clear on societal limits to a person’s choices and actions.

“Supporting autonomy does not mean condoning irresponsibility, nor does it mean allowing people to engage in dangerous or harmful acts. Central to promoting autonomy is encouraging people to understand where their rights end and others’ rights begin. Setting limits is a way of communicating about people’s rights and about constraints that exist in the social world. As such, it helps people to learn to be responsible in making their choices.”

Some considerations in setting limits:

  • The person/client should (where possible) be involved in setting the limits, rather than having them unilaterally imposed upon them
  • The reasoning for any limits needs to be well understood by the person/ client, together with the likely consequences of breaking them
  • We should aim to keep limits as wide as possible, and allow choice within them
  • Limits should be communicated in factual, rather than controlling, language

Consequences: “Once limits are set and the consequences communicated, it is important to follow through, else one is undermining one’s own credibility.”

Some key points on consequences:

  • Consequences must be appropriate to any lapses or contraventions. This MUSTN’T be about punishment or attempting control. It should be about encouraging responsibility
  • The person/ client should be free to choose whether they stay within the set limits…and then experience the (previously communicated) outcomes of whether they do or don’t.
  • However, if we (the ‘one up’) don’t follow through, we are really back at permissiveness.

“…it is easy to confuse autonomy support with permissiveness [because] people find it hard to admit that they are being permissive, so they mis-portray their permissive behaviour as autonomy support.

Permissiveness is easy, but autonomy support is hard [yet ultimately rewarding] work”

Control spectrum 3

Reset and repeat: and finally, if and when a person/ client chooses a given course direction (whatever direction this may be), we are dynamically back at understanding.

We don’t judge a client for their choices, we work hard at understanding more deeply why they made them, so that we can go round the ‘autonomy support’ loop until we and they succeed.

In Summary:

It’s not about saying ‘No’ (Control) or ‘Yes’ (Permissive)…it’s about moving from an overly simplistic view and on to real understanding and valuable human interactions.

It may be hard (in the short term) but hugely effective (over time). Conversely, we may be surprised at how easy it is – many a client is just stuck, waiting to be understood!

Future Linkages from this post:

I’ve got a couple of related topics that should ‘dangle’ off this post. They are:

  • ‘Motivational Interviewing’: Discussing a method that fits with equipping those in case management roles with the skills to be autonomy supportive; and
  • ‘Decentralisation 2.0’: Discussing how the central and support functions of large service organisations should interact with their sites to enable, rather than (attempt to) control.

I haven’t written them yet…but I hope to find the time to do so.

Footnotes

1. These three elements are central to Deci and Ryan’s ‘Self Determination Theory’

2. These risks apply equally to the person/client and the ‘one up’ person/ case manager!

3. All quotes from Deci in this post come from his highly readable book titled “Why we do what we do”