This is an excerpt from The Simple Leader: Personal and Professional Leadership at the Nexus of Lean and Zen
The central concept of Zen is mindfulness—becoming intentionally aware of yourself in the present. You focus on the current moment by eliminating distractions and embracing solitude and stillness, letting go of the future and the past, which are both outside of your control.
By clearing our minds of worries and regrets about the future and the past, we begin to pay attention to the present. We cease to be on automatic pilot. When we do this, we begin to understand the true essence of who we are. We recognize our values, desires, and beliefs. From this understanding, we can influence the present to steer us toward a desired future, always knowing that we cannot control the future and we must continually adjust the present.
Focusing on the present is difficult. If you are doing two things at once, e.g., surfing the Internet while talking on the phone, or cooking dinner while watching television, you aren’t being mindful. Multitasking, as we’ll discuss later, simply doesn’t work. Having an inability to focus and be mindful is one reason why.
Meditation is at the core of Zen, and can be as simple as taking a few minutes to sit quietly, removing both internal and external distractions. Embracing solitude and stillness helps you become mindful, aware of yourself, of your breathing, of the thoughts flying through your head. By actively engaging with the present through meditation you become more calm and relaxed, even when you are not intentionally meditating. Eventually, you will be able to find tranquility, even in a noisy room. Imagine being calm while stuck in traffic or flying through O’Hare the day before Thanksgiving. It can happen!
Another way Zen opens our minds is through the use of koans. Koans are stories or riddles with no clear logical answer— or any specific right answer, for that matter. Here’s an example of a popular one: “Looking into a well, a man without shadow is drawing water. Why?” Koans can drive us nuts (especially Westerners), but by focusing on such riddles, we become more aware of ourselves and the sometimes counterintuitive aspects of our environment. For example, if we are agitated while waiting in a line at a bank, is it the bank’s fault, or is it ours for not allowing enough time? At the present moment, unable to control the past or the future, is there value in being agitated? Remember when I mentioned that Lean is often counterintuitive, using the example that it is more efficient to prepare one complete Christmas letter at a time than to separate the steps? Now you are beginning to sense the nexus.
Although Zen creates focus in the present, it does not preclude having goals for the future. There is nothing wrong with goals as long as they reflect the truth that we have discovered inside ourselves. Most self-help books try to change who we are. Zen wants us to discover who we are, then use that as a platform for growth.
A common symbol in Zen is the ensō, a circle created with a single brush stroke that symbolizes minimalism, strength, elegance, and the universe. The
circle is generally open, indicating the opportunity for improvement while striving for perfection. Similarly, Lean tells us to work continually on small, incremental improvements. Instead of bench- marking against others, Lean organizations compare themselves to perfection.
Simplicity (kanso) is another core principle of Zen. Striving toward simplicity in all aspects of our lives helps make it easier to experience and understand the present—in other words, to be mindful. Simplicity creates balance (kyosei) and the ability to embrace austerity (koko), so we can appreciate what Tanveer Naseer calls the “white spaces,” or open spots on our calendar and in our lives.
Zen is humanistic, compassionate, and communal, while at the same time focused within ourselves. We exist in the present with our friends, relatives, coworkers, and fellow citizens. It teaches us that we do not need to feed our egos or acquire more material goods, allowing us to better help others without comparing ourselves to them. The prevalence of this mindset became very evident during the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami in early 2011. There was no looting. It simply didn’t exist because people were more concerned about their community than themselves.