It occurred to me recently that one reason we don’t learn from what we do is because of delays. A delay in the feedback loop between cause (action) and effect (result of action) makes it much more difficult to recognize the relationship between the two. I believe this is actually well understood by many – what struck me was both how obvious it is and how difficult it might be to change. Let’s assume a simple relationship, without a lot of other variables at play. If I do something, and the result of my action is delayed in time, even if it is a direct result of my action it will still be very difficult to make that connection. And it does not take much of a delay to disrupt the feedback mechanism that would reinforce the learning – a delay of less than a day could be problematic. If we observe some result, we may attribute it to some other action we took, or something else entirely. Or we may have been unconscious, acting more out of habit then explicit intention, which only make the problem of connecting action to result even more intractable. (To go deep on unconscious habit loops and how to bring them into conscious awareness in order to change them, take a look at The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.) If realizing the connection between action and result is a challenge for individuals, consider how much more challenging it is for groups or organizations, with multiple actors, results and feedback loops happening simultaneously.
Rather than feel overwhelmed by this, I find optimism in the potential of applying three disciplines I have been practicing: Lean management, systems thinking, and mindfulness. The connection between Lean thinking and systems thinking has been made by others – Rick Ross, for example, discusses process mapping and systems thinking in one of the essays included in the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. All three emphasize the value in bringing attention to the current state, to increase awareness: Lean techniques include visual management systems and root cause analysis to deeply understand the current state; systems thinking leverages causal loop diagrams to map the current system and help surface hidden loops and causes at play; and mindfulness encourages the practitioner to bring awareness fully to the present moment – the breath, body, thoughts – and meet the present moment with acceptance, without judgment.
I am discovering that my mindfulness practice is deeply supporting my efforts to apply Lean and systems thinking to the challenges I encounter. It helps me be respectful of others, coming from a place of compassion and recognition that everyone is working hard and doing the best they can – that the challenges are in the processes, not the people. It also helps me approach systems mapping with the goal of understanding things as they are, not as I want them to be. To be honest, I frequently fall into the habit of blaming others and mapping the system I want, not the one that is. And as long as I practice staying grounded in the present, I notice the frustration that arises – which brings me back to recognizing that the source of my frustration is my belief that reality should be something other than it is.
Perhaps it is only from a place of awareness and deep acceptance of what is that real change is possible. It won’t solve the problem of delays, but it is a place to start.