Six Sigma and more: The value of silence

David SchwinnCurrent events and past experiences suggest that the practice of inner silence, achieved through meditation and other practices, may be the route to innovation.

This month’s column is prompted by a recent example of the inability of management and union leadership to come together for the good of all. Think also of our political system’s apparent inability to do the same. These examples are not unusual, but they are disappointing. But there’s more.

The tragedy of an American soldier’s killing apparently defenseless civilians in Afghanistan also weighed on my mind as I finished an audio book by Pema Chődrőn titled Good Medicine (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2001). The theme of the book is one of turning pain into compassion with Tonglen Meditation. “What does that have to do with Six Sigma?” seems an appropriate question to ask. I think it has to do with innovation, one of the biggest challenges to Six Sigma and, for that matter, any continual improvement effort.

Early in my career, I might have thought of innovation as being asked to do something I didn’t know how to do. Back at General Motors, I asked an expert and read things I hadn’t read before. That simple solution has, by the way, served me well over the years and continues to serve me well. Had I not done those two things, my recent sabbatical would have never gotten off the ground. While all that is a good first step at problem solving, I no longer think of it as being innovative.

When I moved to Ford, I attended a course in creative problem solving. In retrospect, that was probably the first time I really considered innovation. I learned about the difference between convergent and divergent thinking. I learned about brainstorming and other techniques intended to encourage creativity. The culture in both those companies also embraced strategic planning, so I took that as a given, although I certainly understood the shortcomings of strategic planning when Dr. Deming criticized the goal setting associated with it (Out of the Crisis, Cambridge, MA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1986). Unfortunately, that technology also fell short of the kind of innovation I think we need. In retrospect, I think it is because all those methods, either implicitly or explicitly, incorporate constraints that limit the creativity of the vision.

As my wife Carole and I went out to try to teach Dr. Deming’s philosophy and methodology of continual improvement after I left Ford, we found some organizations that were so far gone that they needed to be reinvented rather than improved. We also found some opportunities that required starting with a clean sheet of paper. Peter Senge’s discipline called a “shared vision” (The Fifth Discipline, New York, Doubleday, 1990) helped, but the work of Russ Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi really made an impact on our ability to help organizations and communities with essential innovation. Ackoff and Gharajedaghi called for an “idealized design” that creates:

…the most exciting vision of the future that the designers are capable of producing. It is the design of the next generation of systems to replace the existing order. It is a design subject to only three constraints:

  1. Technological feasibility;
  2. Operational viability;
  3. Learning and adaptation.

This approach to innovation is powerful, but admittedly, it still resides in the realm of the intellect. Chődrőn reminds us there can be more. Her answer is to practice Tonglen Mediation. It seems to be a powerful practice, but what I have found to work is just to be silent. I’ve been taught to pray and I’ve been taught about a half dozen other meditative practices. I’ve practiced them all to some extent over the years, so maybe my conclusion comes from all that practice. For me, all I have to do is be quiet. Answers come.

There are many approaches, tools, and techniques for helping us to be innovative and getting us unstuck. Google the topic. Besides what I’ve already discussed, I particularly like the work of Roger von Oech, Thomas Armstrong, David Cooperrider, and Edward de Bono. The one addition I’m advocating may take a little practice, but it is a great way to start your journey into real innovation. Begin with a little silence.

“In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light,

and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.”

Mahatma Gandhi

As always, I treasure your comments and questions. You can reach me by commenting below.

4 thoughts on “Six Sigma and more: The value of silence

  1. Sometimes when we’re struggling to find an answer to a problem, the answer can come when you’re at lunch or folding laundry back home (when your mind is at “rest”, so to speak). Answers come to those grand problems during silence … not always when you’re rushing from meeting to meeting, working intently on another project or overthinking the current situation.

    Or even if you’re sluggish and seem empty of ideas, forward moving thoughts can come when you practice silence or meditation!

  2. I will long remember waking up one night with the answer to a problem I’d been working on, along with a new device for simplifying our operations. Ever since then I’ve learned to put off tough problems for a day whenever that’s possible

  3. Frrm time to time I encounter a challenge whos solution is illusive at that moment. I would stop working on the solution and finsh other projects the rest of the day. The solution usually came to me the next morning just prior to being fully awake. Isaih 26:3

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