The Mindful Business

Make your work place a sangha

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It is difficult to sit and meditate for 20 minutes, especially in this fast-paced world. So, when I tell people I strive to help businesses meditate for the entirety of an eight-hour work-day, they fail to see the practicality. When I go on to tell them that the path to get there is by mimicking a car company, some begin to question my sanity. However, employees at Toyota, whether they know it or not, experience mindfulness throughout their day. This way of working is often referred to as The Toyota Way and was later coined as Lean by James Womack in his book, The Machine That Changed the World. But whether a company makes cars or not, there are lessons to be learned from Toyota that should be (and are being) transferred to many other businesses.

In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh explains the Four Noble Truths: suffering (dukkha), origin (samudaya) of suffering, cessation (nirodha) of creating suffering by refraining from doing the things that make us suffer, and the path (marga) that leads to refraining from doing the things that cause us to suffer (10-11). He goes on to explain two aspects that allow us to calm, rest, and heal: shamatha (“stopping”) and vipashyana (“looking deeply”). By looking deeply into our suffering, we can gain insight into why our suffering exists and find ways to eliminate it: with insight, we know what to do and what not to do to change the situation (26).

For humans, most suffering arises from not letting go of events in the past that were unpleasant or fearing that those events will repeat themselves in the future. In other words, their suffering arises from the inability to be present or mindful.

Lean also has its’ version of being mindful, commonly referred to as achieving flow. This is achieved when employees can respond to customer demand (takt) with continuous and uninterrupted flow. Flow is disrupted when waste (muda) keeps employees from doing their job properly. The root-cause of all waste is over-production: producing too much, too soon. Again, the culprit is the mind’s inability to remain present. In fear of not producing quickly enough, employees over-produce, which leads to mistakes and the need for rework. This, in turn, only compounds their original fears. In this way, an individual’s suffering and a business’s suffering are no different.

However, unlike an individual, a business (a collection of individuals) cannot close its’ eyes and watch the manifestation of its’ suffering in the form of thoughts. Thus, it is important that a business visualize its’ suffering some other way. At Toyota and other companies that practice Lean, this is done by creating what is referred to as visual management. One form of visual management displays how a team is performing on key metrics on a white board; typically, how they are producing to takt and the quality of their output. When a team is not performing to the desired target, the metric is displayed in red to signal it needs attention. This is akin to the worries we visualize when we meditate.

With visual management in place, it is critical that a business build in shamatha (“stopping”) to analyze the visual management and gain insight. This is done with what is typically referred to as a huddle. These short sessions (anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes) are a form of meditation, in which teams stand in front of the visual management and observe their problems, i.e. the red. In doing so, they seek to understand the root-cause of their problems and put in place counter-measures to eliminate them or reduce their impact. Team members are self-accountable and take ownership of the counter-measures (also visualized on the board), many of which, are focused on redistributing work and helping each other out. Depending on the volume of work, these sessions can happen as frequent as every hour-on-the-hour or, at a minimum, once a day.

Like meditation, although this sounds simple, the execution is anything but. When teams first begin to huddle, it is important to have a set of principles that guide their behavior. Without such principles, teams often resort to blame in reaction to the red. This is also common when one meditates, passing judgement on one’s self for the very thoughts that arise, as opposed to just observing them as the “watcher.” It is only as the watcher that we gain deep insight that allows us to know what to do and what not to do to change the situation.

The eight elements of the eightfold path offer us a set of principles that also translate to how a team should behave during a huddle. For example, the principle of right view is paramount to the success of a huddle. In Buddhism, all view is wrong view. Thus, to blame an employee for a problem would be a grave mistake. Rather, we should believe all employees, inherently, have good intentions and that problems reflect the system in place; not the employee. As such, it is important that leadership behave in accordance with this principle by never blaming people when red appears on the visual management. Rather, they should use humble inquiry to understand why problems exist and seek opportunities to act as servant leaders and help employees to calm, rest, and heal.

With the right diligence at practicing the Toyota Way, businesses that were once profane will transform into a sacred sangha where unifying rituals are performed that embrace problems and transform them into continuous improvement, thus, restoring employee freshness and strength. 

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