Sunday, November 22, 2009

Loaves and fishes and hoshin kanri

Tom Jackson
Portland, Oregon
November 22, 2009

I have often wondered about the parable of the loaves and fishes (Mark 6:30-44) in which Jesus and his disciples feed five thousand with just five loaves of bread and only two fishes. I believe that it may be a tale told by an economist, at least an economist at heart, and a very smart one. Overlooking for the moment the very meager number of loaves and fishes and the fulsome multitude in the story related in the Gospel of Mark, isn't it true that when we exchange one thing we value less for another that we value more, in the right spirit of course, we nearly always feel more satisfied?

What I believe happened long ago was that the five thousand realized that they were being selfish, and that, encouraged by Jesus, they opened to each other and shared what they had been sheltering in the belief that no one else would would be willing to do so. An apparent shortage was a potential abundance, and it became reality through exchange with one another.

What does it mean, really, to love one another? Perhaps it means to conduct our exchanges with each other in the right spirit. And what would that be? (This might fly in the face of Jesus' violent reaction to money lenders in the Temple in Jerusalem, except for the fact that the money lenders were set up within the Temple compound.)

Respect for people, naturally. "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Well, that goes beyond respect for people, doesn't it, because it includes respect for yourself. It also means that you understand that your neighbor is just as limited as you are. Or, as the Buddha put it earlier, "Everyone suffers." My point is only amplified.

So how is the Gospel of Mark related to hoshin kanri? In hoshin kanri there may be a replicable methodology to achieve something like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. As James Womack recently pointed out at Italy's first Lean Summit, held in Vicenza (home of Renaissance architect Palladio), the hoshin process is about surfacing and resolving conflicts regarding the allocation of (scarce) resources.

Much of the miracle of hoshin kanri is achieved by individuals' relinquishing pet projects that skew the allocation of resouces in ways that disadvantage the community. The more time we spend solving shared problems instead of our own, the better off we are collectively.

Actually, it turns out that we may be a lot better off. When we work together to solve a common problem such as "not enough to eat," there is a kind of speedup in the problem solving akin to the speedup related to parallel processing in computer science. Each of us is, after all, a kind of information processor not unlike a computer chip, however slow. According to Amdahl's law, the law that explains how fast parallel computers can go, to the extent we can "parallelize," or in other words decentralize, information processing we can expect to speed up information processing but 5, 10, 20 times, even more. Something like this happens in organizations when we decentralize problem solving by involving more and more people in the job--assuming of course that we do it with respect. So, what may seem like an intractable problem may literally disappear in a relative flash when a large number of people focus on it appropriately.

So, in the case of hoshin kanri, what does "respect" mean exactly? Well, it means that we recognize that everyone has something of value to contribute, be it a loaf, a fish, a vital piece of information, or a bright idea. It also means that we recognize each other's limitations and not ask too much of each other. In information processing terms, this means that we factor the problem appropriately by breaking it down into something each of us can deal with. Respect also means that we do our best to communicate clearly with one another and that we synchronize our activities. The original miracle of the loaves and fishes did not take place over the course of several days--the fish would have spoiled. The miracle of the loaves and fishes happened, as it were, instantaneously, through a process of mutual discovery.

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