In the June issue of Lubes’n’Greases, Jack Goodhue wrote a an article about the Zen concept – shoshin – beginner’s mind. Normally a fan of Jack’s Your Business column, I was surprised by how far off the mark he was in his understanding of shoshin. I wrote a letter to the editor to express my concerns, and a condensed version of my letter was published in this month’s issue. I believe that when used appropriately, shoshin is of tremendous value to business leaders. My full letter to the editor (Caitlin Jacobs) provides a more detailed argument than the version of the letter as it appeared in Lubes’n’Greases. I’ve copied and pasted it here. In the version below, I’ve added a few links to articles that explain shoshin in more detail than I have in my letter. I look forward to reading your comments.
I generally enjoy reading Mr. Goodhue’s Your Business articles in each month’s LNG, but found myself scratching my head while reading his critique of shoshin in his June 2019 offering. His comments made me think of novice mariners failing to recognize that, as important lighthouses are as aides to navigation, their very presence represents a hazard to navigation – follow the line of sight track toward the beacon for too long and you’ll run aground.
No doubt, Mr. Goodhue accurately reported Mr. Fogel’s comment about shoshin. It’s a shame that he didn’t then do a bit of research on the beginner’s mind concept before writing his essay. Prof. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who is also Nobel laureate in economics has waxed long and poetic about our tendency to be blinded by preconceptions. In many professions, true experts are able to respond to cues and react appropriately seemingly without thought. Air Force Col. John Boyd canonized this ability as the OODA – observe, orient, decide, act – loop in areal combat. The pilot with the shortest OODA loop wins the dogfight. In Prof. Kahneman’s terms this is “fast thinking.” Malcom Gladwell’s “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” is a paean to fast thinking. However, as Prof. Kahneman explains in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” although the ability to react quickly with limited data is no doubt beneficial in some circumstances, it is not universally so. Snap decisions – used inappropriately – can lead to disastrous results. This often the case when complex issues are being considered.
Developing long-term strategic business plans is one example and root cause analysis is another in which a beginner’s mind is more likely to lead to success. As explained by D. T. Suzuki – the Japanese Buddhist scholar largely responsible for expanding western readers’ awareness of Buddhist and Zen thought – the concept underlying shoshin is to strive to become aware of your biases and preconceptions and to – at least temporarily – set them aside when examining an issue. The idea is to adopt an open mind and to avoid drawing conclusions based on preconceptions rather than available, objective information – first observe without judgment (this is the philosophy underlying brainstorming efforts). With a beginner’s mind, one can accept data, ideas, and information without critique – without filtering through the lens of personal bias. Embracing beginner’s mind during the early stages of problem-solving efforts or during the listening phase of conversations makes an individual more receptive to insights they would otherwise miss.
I’ll offer a case study to illustrate my point. In my work with the petroleum retail sector I often hear about filter plugging from clients who would be better advised to report the issue as slow flow. Retail fuel dispensers are set to deliver product at a maximum flow rate of 10 gpm (40 L/min). Although there are typically at least six different phenomena that can individually cause, or collectively contribute to, reduced flowrate, too many retail site operators assume that slow flow is a symptom only of filter-plugging. A shoshin approach would have stakeholders focus on the objective reality – reduced flowrate. And to ask beginner’s mind questions, such as: “What are all of the things in a retail fuel system that can contribute to flowrate reduction?” Note here, no one is asked to discard their previous knowledge or experience. They are only asked to set them aside in order to see the actual situation more clearly. By understanding that premature filter plugging is only one of several phenomena that cause flowrate reduction, stakeholders are better able to develop a cost effective plan to minimize both the risk and impact of fuel dispenser slow-flow (The opportunity cost of flowrates <8 gpm at an urban fuel retail site is >$250,000 per dispenser per year at a site with 12 dispensers, that per dispenser cost translates to $3 million lost fuel sales opportunity. Beginner’s mind thinking could mean $millions in increased revenue).
I fully agree with Mr. Goodhue. “Achieving shoshin would be difficult for most business people or anyone else more than three years old.” So is metadata analysis. The difficulty of achieving shoshin should not discourage either technical or managerial folks from cultivating the skill. The return on effort and investment in cultivating a beginner’s mind can be enormous when the mindset is used appropriately.
Frederick J. Passman, Ph.D.