San gen shugi: The blind men and an elephant

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Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

TIGER Woods was invited to give a pep talk to a group of blind golfers. He asked the avid blind players how they were able to know what direction to hit the ball. One blind golfer explained to Woods that the caddy went out ahead of him with a little bell, which he would ring as he stood near the hole.

The blind golfer would then hit the ball toward the sound of the bell.

Woods asked how well it worked, and the blind golfer said that it worked so well he was willing to take him for a round of golf. And just to make it more interesting, the blind golfer offered a bet of $10,000 that he could beat him. Woods gladly accepted the challenge: “OK, what time do we tee off?”

The blind man replied with a smile on his face: “At 10:30 tonight!”


Blindness is all what’s plaguing around us—government officials showing how they manage (or mismanage) the situation after super typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan). It appears that slowness and ineptness are the inherent part of every administration, and now it’s being highlighted in the case of President Noynoy Aquino.

Our government bureaucrats, aided by nothing doing politicians, don’t have to lift a finger to create chaos and red tape as it’s already there since time immemorial. These problems predate our knowledge of their existence. But that doesn’t mean we are powerless to change them. We know how to solve this problem: by immediately going to where the problem is.

Within the context of the Toyota Production System or lean production, this simple approach is called san gen shugi (literally, the three actual situations): genba (actual place), genbutsu (actual thing),genjitsu (actual situation). You don’t have to master this Japanese mumbo-jumbo. All you’ve to do is to understand the letter and spirit of the American version of Management by Walking Around (MBWA).

In the same manner, san gen shugi and MBWA tell us what to do under any problem situation—there’s no substitute for personal, direct, and first-hand observation. Otherwise, you can try talking to those people on the ground . . . only if you want not to dirty your fingers and would prefer to hear only sanitized information.

That’s why CNN’s Anderson Cooper was right when he went to the genba and reported what he saw in actual real time at the actual place, describing the actual situation with live footages that can’t deny. There was no Korina Sanchez reporting live at the same time, place, and situation.

It’s the same case of the blind men and an elephant. Remember that ancient Indian parable? It’s one big lesson that every belief represents only a part of the total truth according to Greg Koukl’s blog “Stand to Reason.” Quoting the story from Lilian Quigley, Koukl’s explains the parable: “The first blind man put out his hand and touched the elephant. “How smooth! An elephant is like a wall.” The second blind man put out his hand and touched the trunk of the elephant. “How round! An elephant is like a snake.”

“The third blind man put out his hand and touched the tusk of the elephant. “How sharp! An elephant is like a spear.” The fourth blind man put out his hand and touched the leg of the elephant. “How tall! An elephant is like a tree.” The fifth blind man reached out his hand and touched the ear of the elephant. “How wide! An elephant is like a fan.” The sixth blind man put out his hand and touched the tail of the elephant. “How thin! An elephant is like a rope.”

“An argument ensued, each blind man thinking his own perception of the elephant was the correct one. The Rajah, awakened by the commotion, called out from the balcony. “The elephant is a big animal,” he said. Each man touched only one part. You must put all the parts together to find out what an elephant is like.” Of course, it is.

Now, how do you like the end that story? I’ll venture with the interpretation by the seventh blind man. “This elephant is smelly, wet, and soft. What’s this on my hands and feet?”

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing on human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback toelbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random thoughts.

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