Listening and Innovation

When I was learning the tricks of my trade from my teacher, I used to listen.

Since I hardly ever questioned him or expressed any doubt about what he said he asked me one day, “Do you understand what I say?”

“Yes”, I said “since I intently listen to what you say.”

“And how is that?” he asked.

“When I am listening to you there are no longer two persons like you and I. There are no longer the speaker and the listener. I just become one with you. That is the only way I understand what you say. The whole responsibility is mine”

Even today, I remember not only what my teacher spoke but also remember the manner in which he spoke, wrote, explained, gestured — every small detail.

Soon some of my friends remarked that when I delivered a talk or a lecture or engaged in a conversation, I spoke and behaved exactly the way my teacher did.

Needless to say, that this skill of listening soon helped me surge ahead with rapid speed in what became my profession and my hobby.  Soon I innovated many special techniques and methods of innovation that can be easily applied to complex situations.

Listening is an indispensable skill in innovation.

It is so very important when innovation is a response to an existing complexity.

The goal of listening is to merge with what is being ‘listened’ to and be one with it.

Then only true understanding emerges.

All good innovations take birth from such true understanding.



Qualities of a Teacher…

We all need teachers/gurus/mentors to get ahead in life and do good to self and others.

But what are the qualities of a teacher that make a ‘teacher’ the right teacher for us?

There are at least seven qualities any good teacher has: –

1. Knows about a practice learned from past masters or having created a body of knowledge developed over years of practice through direct experience.

2. Knows the nuanced meaning of the body of knowledge.

3. Sense of oneself . Knows one’s convictions, values, virtues, weakness, ways or methods of learning, degree of discernment, wit, humor, kindness, emotions, feelings…

4. Sense when enough is enough. That is having a sense of enough food, shelter, clothing, health, knowledge, practice, application, concentration, thinking, effort, ….

5. Sense of time and place. Has a sense of timing of when to act, speak, think, concentrate, when to eat, when to rest, when to listen, when to memorize, when to collaborate, when to cooperate, when to ask questions, when to stop, when not to act ….

6. Sense of social gathering. Has a sense of what is to be done in a social setting. How much is to be spoken? How to behave? When to speak or act what? How a thing is to be told or communicated? What and how to tell whom and what… that brings out the best in self and others…

7. Sense of individuals. Has a sense of whom to follow, whom to learn from, whom to copy, whom to collaborate with, whom to cooperate, whom to stay close to, whom to avoid …..

First two qualities are related to knowledge, which can be transmitted through words, books, lectures, debates, dialogs. The last five are related to sensing, which can’t be directly transmitted but are to be developed by the student by copying the teacher and staying close enough to experience various situations and learn how the teacher faces and negotiates such situations.

To a Teacher on Teachers’ Day…

5th of September is special in India. It is celebrated as ‘Teachers‘ Day’. This is a day to remember with gratitude the most precious asset in our lives – teachers. It is a day to reflect on the contributions they left behind in our lives and how close we are to the paths they showed us to lead our lives.

Every year this day is special to me. I remember with fond gratitude my teacher Prof Tim Henry. He has long retired from the University of Manchester, UK. But he continues to live life creatively and with lot of zest. This is the letter I wrote to him today – (certain portions are explained in italics to make sense of some words I used)

Dear Sir, (In India we refer to teachers as Sir).
My pronam (it is a deep bow touching the feet of a teacher) to you on this day of remembrance. It is not that I wait for this day to remember. It happens every morning as I am up to be delighted by another day. And if there were something more than gratitude, I would love to offer that to you. Hope you and Madam are happy and healthy.
As life moves on for me it becomes simpler by the day. Increasingly I am getting to love my “aloneness”, which I feel is a necessary component of life at this stage.
There is no need to overdo anything. Or over convince anyone. Or be too much active than needed. When I look back at the years gone by I am amazed as to how much activity I did and the energy I put into those, which I believed as hard work – much of which was plain stupid. The constant pressure to prove myself and a maniacal attitude to share what I enjoyed so as to inspire others was stressful to say the least. Now I do what I like or love doing not bothering to inspire or impress others. It is a joy. I no longer harbor any illusion or even the faintest intention to teach others anything. I realize that the way through which I saw and felt life and my work is something that can’t be taught to others. You were right when you warned me not to attempt teaching the ways. I was a fool then not to have listened. Fair to say all my attempts to teach others have failed. I could not develop any standardized format for my non-standardized ways to effectively teach others however enjoyable that might have been.
Having left that ‘outward journey’ I feel peaceful and breathe with ease. What a relief that is with a simple realization that I can’t change anything, less the world except change myself. The world has its own crazy unpredictable ways of moving. Watching that is of course a pleasure.
Rick is now in his fifth and final year of his architectural course. In less than an year’s time he would be well on his way with his own ideas repeating the same cycle – bubbling with lots of ideas and concepts waiting for expression all of which one day he would also have to shed like me being defeated by our so-called society that fanatically believes in an ordered ‘linear world’ – a world created by our imagination only.
Rit is in his second year of his electronics course and struggling with Laplace and Fourier Transforms. He is yet to appreciate the beauty and the limitation of maths. But seeing me do that for years he feels he can somehow handle that. He often strikes up conversations on these and it is a joy to engage with a willing and experimental mind. He understands when he can visualize maths. That is quite a challenge for me to help him visualize the nuances of maths.
Madhumita continues to struggle with her health, which has remained the same in predictable ways. She is now in a steady state equilibrium position — perhaps a very difficult position to maintain in life. I always thought life oscillates in non-linear ways operating away from equilibrium. Like many other concepts I held in my mind she proved me wrong. So I had to let go of that concept too.
Perhaps I am now confused about many things in life. Nothing is certain, sure and predictable in the long run. That is possibly a lesson I would have been forced to learn in the hard way had it not been for CBM (Condition Based Maintenance of systems based on non-linear dynamics) principles you taught me in the formative period of my career.
I still continue with some interesting work, one of which is the Blast Furnace. It appears that no one has been able to predict as to when a blast furnace would ‘hang’ or ‘slip’. When I started exploring the phenomenon it gave me nightmares and left me clueless for the first three months of the study. Then suddenly an idea struck me. What if I trend the difference of the frequencies of the multiple phenomena going on in the furnace? And as luck would have it I am now finding a pattern to go with and predict the situation 3 hours to 45 mins in advance, which is a big breakthrough as I understand from my client. Luckily the client did not expect any outcome from my play. But now they are sitting up and expecting more from the study. To me the blast furnace is the most mysterious of all systems I have seen and engaged with so far. It produces beautiful patterns on its own in a spontaneous manner. It simply leaves me fascinated and wonder-struck – Nature at her best. Incidentally I started off by using the same trend sheets you designed but the only difference is that I am plotting differences not the actual value of the parameters. This is because I think the differences feed back into the system dynamics to produce new order from non-linearity. It is fun to see stability and instability appear at the same time.
The other interesting work I did was on quality improvement in a Japanese factory that makes ductile iron pipes. Since the Japs failed to make any significant breakthrough in bringing down quality rejections to an acceptable limit through their time-tested universal methods it became a challenge to see quality improvement through the new perspective of non-linear dynamics. And soon I found that non-linear dynamics gives instant clues to quality problems which I did not suspect any earlier. It was a year of fun. For example, slippage of v belts of the main pulley that powers the mold of the casting machine causes as much as 100% rejections. It was hard to believe this. But then I discovered how true it was when small changes in fluctuations amplify over time to cause such problems. The causes of problems lie in the dynamics. This to me was a new understanding in quality improvement though it took time for the client to swallow all that.
Work on downtime reduction also continues. But that has become a piece of cake for me. It is as easy as A, B, C. The fun part is as I approach a machine or a system and pay attention, the machine starts off an extremely interesting and lucid conversation with me and keeps talking to me all the time like a girl friend would have done so in my younger days. All I do is to hear her intently with all the pure attention I can shore up and then simply write out the prescription for the client. It is lovely to hear the stories machines tell. For example, maintenance engineers take ‘leakage’ in a very straightforward way – just change seals. But ‘leakages’ tell me very amazing stories. It tells me where dimensions are not right, where synchronicity is a problem, where pipes contribute to the leaks and it goes on never stops surprising me… the stories are fascinating.
During the last week of August we had our usual Vibration Level 2 certification event at NTPC (National Thermal Power Corportion), PMI (Power Management Institute) at Noida This time I changed the nature of the interactions between participants and myself. No more of those dreadful Powerpoint slides. I asked the participants to bring their own cases where they failed to make any breakthrough or weren’t sure of what they did or simply wanted to know more about what was going on in their system. 28 participants came to challenge the test. It was a fun-filled event and I think they got inspired by the way vibrations tell stories. From their signatures and wave-forms when I said that a CW pump (Circulating Water pump without which a power plant can’t run) was too near the walls of the water tank and the distances between the 3 pumps were less than usual they gasped. They were equally surprised when informed that a particular pump that failed had its delivery pipe bent at the wrong place. Or they wondered when I said that the catenary of a turbine shaft changed since the oil pump wasn’t working properly.  They thought that I was gifted with the gift of clairvoyance. They found it hard to believe that I just listen to the stories vibration waves try to tell me and the stories are just available to anyone who cares to pay attention and listen.
Such new learning and understanding has made my life more simple and enjoyable. Never a boring moment for me.
Would love to hear about your life since that has been the source of my inspiration for years. Do you and Madame still visit Wales? Is she still busy with her paintings? I feel that I must again take up sketching and painting a bit more seriously. That is another thing that gives me a lot of pleasure. What about Jill and Kay and their children? Has Natalie, if I am not wrong, joined the architectural course? And what about the little boy? He seems to have taken after you. Is he interested in Engineering?
I think  in more ways than one I am simply copying you or rather cloning you without having any of your genius to create a fascinating discipline. I have stuck to your advice of staying alone and not expanding my practice into an organization. It has helped me tremendously – giving me enough time and space to go down the numerous rabbit holes of puzzles and problems and stay in a perpetual state of wonder and curiosity. It seems that I would never grow up though much of my hair has disappeared while the rest are quickly turning grey.
In the later years of your career I saw how you were engaged but detached at the same time without failing to enjoy what you did. To me it appeared to be the most sensible way to go forward in life and as I continue to work in a detached manner life becomes more enjoyable. It is hard though!
Pronam to You and Madame