Yesterday I had a conversation with a consulting colleague about a shared interest, lean manufacturing and production. A few years ago, after some generous mentoring from another friend and colleague, I had the pleasure of doing a few months of consulting for a branch of the US military. After a month of training to become versed in the approach of the consulting firm I was working with, I did process improvement consulting and made weekly flights to a military base a few hours away. There were a couple of sessions in particular where I was the recipient of some wonderful tragicomic lessons. The first, was an amusing lesson in how crazy our individual “separate” interests are and how complicated it makes our lives. The second how inspiring – and deserving of true compassion – what we really are is and how important it is to search our souls for the deeper shared interests of life that dissolve artificial boundaries.
In the first session, I was doing a week of group exercises to look at areas within the institution that were volunteered (from among the ranks) that could benefit from simplification and optimization. Interestingly, it was with fairly unanimous consent that the promotion/review process was offered as a case study. After using a copious number of colored sticky notes with process steps written on each one, and plastering them on flip chart papers taped to the walls of a high tech classroom, we had successfully defined a sequence of handoffs that the tree-ware (non-electronic) review paperwork had to go through to reach completion for each annual (or was it quarterly?) review. I think there were 47 separate steps; give or take, maybe it was only 3 dozen, but I know there were a lot! Everyone enthusiastically volunteered their expertise in outlining the details of the steps and confirmed the sequence, with equal participation from the room full of participants, spanning ranks from privates to lieutenant colonels. I even learned that a couple of the steps in the lengthy review process involved shipping (via military transportation, of course) the review paperwork half-way across the country and back again, which added several days to the already lengthy process. The funny (to me) thing is that when I asked – objectively as an outside consultant – where we might consider optimizing the process to save not only time, but probably countless taxpayer dollars, the room fell silent, almost as if I had asked who wanted to volunteer for a firing squad. This was a tremendous lesson for me in how our special interests not only needlessly complicate things, but also how attached we are to the ‘whats-in-it-for-me’ blindness, and how phenomenal our resistance is to genuinely helpful and effective change.
Another session involved cultural assessments with written forms followed by less formal verbal interactions involving what was working and what wasn’t, in order to find the ‘elephants in the room’ in terms of needed improvements. The wisdom of the consulting company I was working for was evident here, since each session was carefully selected to have all participants in the room chosen across multiple disciplines and specialties, but from among a single rank to minimize the fear of speaking out about issues of concern. After the usual complaints and issues emerged (mostly logistical and a few like not enough grass seed for the lawns at base housing) the real heartfelt comments began to emerge. Prior to this experience, I had thought of myself as being supportive of the citizens in our military service while not often agreeing with the specific reasons for their assigned engagements. Then came the testimonials about fellow soldiers who had come back in body bags, or those whose spouses and families had finally given up and moved on after 6, 12 and 18 month deployments overseas. It was then I allowed myself to realize that I was no different from any of the people in the room where these assessments were taking place; we all share the same human fears and longings in a crazy world, and we all share the same Spirit that offers compassion, courage and sanity to navigate through the insanity.