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Prioritize Your Priorities!

Living an authentic, conscious life now requires us to manage ourselves like modern multinationals. Here’s how!

Practice

Art Credit: Pierre-Auguste Renoir

If you had to choose the person most responsible for the frenetic pace of modern times, the best choice would probably be Taylor. You know, Frederick Winslow Taylor. Or perhaps you don’t. Not to worry. Hardly anybody does anymore, but a hundred years ago he was a former tennis champion who became the world’s most renowned efficiency expert.

Taylor observed traditional skilled artisans building products one at a time, analyzed their motions, and separated each move into a separate, relatively unskilled job, thus creating the more efficient method of assembly-line production. There appeared to be nothing Taylor could not break down and speed up, and he provided the groundwork for the likes of Henry Ford and creation of the huge production capabilities that would help to win World War II. 

Today, every drive through a fast-food place can be thought of as a tribute to Taylor. Jobs at such places are designed with no learning curve, so that one’s first day’s production is the same as one’s last. That makes for food that’s quick and cheap, but one doesn’t want to look closely at the mandated smiles or think deeply about what goes into the meal.

What’s missing in the fast-food experience—caring, health, concern for the environment—is the ongoing business revolution of our new century. It actually began more than sixty years ago with another business pioneer named W. Edwards Deming, who realized that dehumanizing a workforce created a factory that was less than the sum of its parts. Deming figured that if everyone on an assembly line could learn to work as one—to care as much about the final product as the former lone artisan—the workers would be happier, the assembly line would be more efficient, and the final products would be better.

After World War II, Deming was asked by the U.S. Army to assist in planning for a Japanese census. While there, he preached a gospel of quality to the war-ravaged country’s scientists and engineers, and within a few years his theories had helped push Japan’s exports higher than its imports. Within a generation, Deming and his disciples had created an economic powerhouse that became the world’s number two economy. Still today, the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers bestows Deming Prizes to honor advances in quality improvement. 

“So what?” you ask. “Why should a spiritually concerned individual pay attention to the ‘humanizing’ management practices of Deming-based multinationals?” The answer is that all the years of super-efficient production and instant connection have provided us with so many possibilities and choices that, ironically, living an authentic, conscious life nowadays probably requires us to manage ourselves like enlightened modern multinationals.

The man who brought this idea home is Matthew Cross, president of a consulting group called Leadership Alliance in Stamford, Connecticut. Cross describes himself as a Deming disciple, and his path has been appropriate. His parents read Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, published in 1960, and were inspired by its author’s arguments against the regimentation of modern school systems, so young Cross ended up being home-schooled from age six. Instead of going to college, Cross went into business. He is handsome and charming, with a wide-ranging intellect and “a mission to restore the natural genius and leadership within people.” He found early success as a natural foods broker, then with a venture involving gift kiosks for Greenpeace, and then with a company that helped to launch the Discover card. Next, Cross discovered Deming and set out to inspire the world.

Cross became a trainer in hoshin kanri, a Japanese method inspired by Deming. Hoshin, based on the idea of an internal compass or North Star, is designed to break through apparent chaos to find a hidden, higher order and direction. In traditional team hoshin workshops, perhaps 15 corporate leaders are brought together. They start by asking a big question, such how they can become the most successful automakers or how their company might best reflect their values. Then everyone in the group comes up with multiple answers.

All the answers—there can be hundreds—are written on sticky notes. Then the real work begins. 

Which answers are related? (They go in the same column.) Which answer drives another? (The “driver” gets priority). Gradually, through dialogue and discovery, the answers are organized in columns and the priorities become clear. Typically, everyone is surprised by where the process ends up, and that creates a tremendous coherence on the part of the team. There is a letting-go of territories and a huge release of energy. 

Cross led hoshin retreats with major companies for a couple of years when, finding himself stranded for an extra day in a Waikiki penthouse suite, he decided to try leading himself through the group process. Many hours and 70 Post-it notes later, he knew he was onto something. Then he tried the same process on friends and family. Then he created workshops and public seminars. 

He found that families could do hoshin sessions together. So could lovers.

Nowadays, Cross frequently does his traditional hoshin training with top corporate executives and leads large groups using his daylong Personal Hoshin program.


Stephen Kiesling is a former Olympic rower, cocreator of the Nike Cross Training System, and editor in chief of Spirituality & Health. A 35th anniversary edition of The Shell Game: Reflections on Rowing and the Pursuit of Excellence has just been published.


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