The popularity of mindfulness has spread beyond self-help and personal wellness. Many organizations in fields such as business, healthcare and government are providing their leaders with mindfulness education and practices. The claimed benefits of these practices include calmness, open-mindedness, improved memory, focus, better decision-making and the ability to cope with complex and fast-paced workplaces.
Any investment to improve human capability is likely to pay off in the form of better performance of the management system. Unlike traditional leadership training intended to change behavior by introducing new information, tools or incentives, mindfulness practices appear to directly work on the neural underpinnings of our behaviors. For example, these practices decrease volumes of gray matter in the amygdala, the region of the brain that initiates a response to stress. This allows mindfulness practitioners to better cope with stimuli which may be otherwise perceived as threatening.
In addition to reducing fear and generally helping us to calm down and focus, there are several ways that mindfulness practices enable Lean thinking, behavior and ultimately the culture.
Abnormality management. When running a machine, we monitor its temperature to make sure it is not overheating. In laboratories we measure and control temperature, humidity, particle count or lumens as experimental conditions require. Body temperature is an indicator of human health. Within a Lean daily management system, we track various indicators to tell us whether the day is going well or if we are falling behind. It’s almost surprising that we don’t have a similar explicit monitoring system to track our “mental temperature” such as emotions, thoughts or attitudes.
Listening to the customer. Listening and responding the needs of the upstream process is the essence of the pull system. Mindfulness encourages being in the moment, having compassion and appreciation. Listening is the first step toward empathy, whether to our own needs, to the needs of the process or to the needs of the customer.
One at a time. Nobel laureate economist and cognitive scientists Herbert Simon once observed, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” We overload our minds when trying to process too much information. We overload our systems for project management, production or healthcare delivery when trying to do too many things at once. Practicing mindfulness routines can strength awareness of what’s going on around us and in our minds and can reduce diffusion of our attention and energy. Lean thinking advises us to work on one meeting, one conversation, one issue, one task, one customer, one piece at a time.
Mindfulness kata. These simple routines include breathing, meditation, and taking a few minutes to reflect on our thinking or emotional state. There is even STOP, a memorable 4-step acronym. Stop, Take a breath, Observe the mind, and Proceed. When we turn mindfulness practices into routines or rituals, they become a kata.
Going to see. We could say that going to the gemba to observe is a type of externalized mindfulness. We are stopping to take a moment out of our day to observe the mind of the gemba in action, proceeding to identify abnormalities and make improvements.
Addressing root causes. When people within an organization, and especially leaders, lack self-awareness, self-control or compassion, this contributes to mistrust, fear and a host of performance problems. A positive outcome of mindfulness practice is addressing these psychological root causes of leadership problems at their source.
Respect for humanity of the organization. The intent of mindfulness in the context of Buddhism is to foster wise action, social harmony, and compassion through the overall pursuit of ethical living. Whatever belief system people may hold, organizations fail in their transformation efforts when their application is superficial. It may be focused only on results, even at the expense of harming people and society. Even focusing on both results and processes is not enough, if human elements such as resistance to change, politics, poor communication or mistrust are neglected. Mindfulness practices offer a way to be aware of the invisible processes of the mind that affect our success at sustaining improvement.