Saturday, May 5, 2012

Which Path? Saul of Tarsus and William of Iowa

Around the year 35, Saul of Tarsus travelled from Jerusalem to Damascus.  While on the road to Damascus he had a conversion experience.  The change was so radical that thereafter in the Bible he is not Saul, the Hebrew, but Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul's conversion epitomizes a strand of Christian tradition.  Another example is the Apostles, seven weeks after the crucifixion of Jesus.  During the Jewish festival of Pentecost they suddenly have a religious experience that makes them come out to the streets and begin preaching.  The Christian Pentecostal movement takes its name from this event.  Much of modern Protestant Christianity has a focus on a single, point-in-time, life-changing conversion.

In 1947, W. Edwards Deming made a different journey.  During the American Occupation, he travelled to Japan to assist with their 1951 census.  While there, he also lectured and trained Japanese engineers in quality control techniques.  He taught the value of continuous incremental improvements in industrial processes - not a search for great breakthroughs, just a steady focus on practices.  Deming's teachings were foundational to Japan's post-war industrial success in firms such as Toyota and Sony:  continuous improvement in quality, productivity, and empowerment of each worker.

I was reminded of Deming's legacy by an article in The Economist about Honeywell Corporation, until recently considered "one of America's most messed-up firms."  But over the last few years Honeywell performed a remarkable turnaround.  They did not do it by finding a magic silver bullet.  Instead, their new CEO had spent time at Toyota factories in the U.S. and decided to implement a process of continuous improvement at Honeywell.  Each morning, every worker takes part in a small group meeting, held standing up and no more than fifteen minutes long.  Each employee is expected to contribute two new ideas for improvement, however small, per month.

In Japan, Deming's teaching found fertile ground.  But until the 1980s, Deming was a prophet without honor in his homeland.

Did Deming's teaching find a better initial reception in Japan than in the U.S. because of a difference in religious roots?  Did it seem more natural to a Buddhist tradition than a Pauline tradition?  Much of Western culture emphasizes the radical conversion experience, as in Paul or Pentecost.  But Buddhist heritage emphasizes steady practice.  In sitting meditation you are attentive, notice, let go, and just focus on your breathing.  Some days it goes well, others not so well, but stay with the practice and you will get better at it.  Do you achieve enlightenment?  Who knows.  Do you become more attentive?  Probably.  Can you continue in improving your practice?  Yes.

Relate this to current Unitarian Universalism:  radical transformation is a buzzword in some UU circles.  But is this a piece of Christian baggage that we would be well rid of?  Radical change sometimes happens.  But like winning the lottery, it is of note exactly because it is so rare.

Buddhist teaching and the success of Deming's students argue that we are better served by attentive practice and incremental change.  It's not as sexy as winning the transformation lottery,  but many small enlightenments may take us where we want to go.  And if they don't - at least we'll be enlightened.


  1. I don't know if it's Christian baggage, but I think UU's would do well to pay more attention to practice and incremental change. It's the boring work of building institutions. We should be a bit more attuned to the many "small enlightenments". I'm afraid we overlook them.

  2. What an important point. I remember in my corporate years, every few years there'd be a huge reorganization of departments, with the unspoken (or sometimes spoken) assumption that THIS reorg would finally solve all our problems. Meanwhile, once day-to-day procedures were in place, it was quite difficult to tweak them. I see similar attitudes in church, where the word "transformational" is used uncritically as a positive. I'm probably one of the impediments in many cases -- I don't particularly like change -- but I do think we could benefit from thinking more in terms of incremental improvement.