The Secret of Exemplary Performance

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Thursday, August 29, 2019
By Pradeep B. Deshpande
Photo by iStock/fizkes
We can teach our students to achieve external excellence, but only if we also help them cultivate internal excellence—through meditation, mindfulness, and meaning.

I first came to know about the famed Dabbawalas of Mumbai in the late 1990s, after reading about them in Forbes magazine. In existence since 1890, the Dabbawalas are a semiliterate community of approximately 5,000 individuals. As a group, they deliver 200,000 lunch boxes to Mumbai residents each day, six days a week, with only one error—such as a late or misrouted lunch box—per 8 million deliveries. Even though Mumbai is a very expensive place to live, the Dabbawalas charge very little for their lunch delivery service—only US$8 to $25 per month. In addition to delivering lunches, the Dabbawalas even find time to collect surplus food from local weddings and parties, which they use to feed the hungry.

Their delivery system is so fine-tuned that Forbes is not alone in finding them worthy of examination. The Financial TimesTimes of India, CBS News, and others have featured stories about them. Leaders, too, have looked to their example—Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic and Charles, Prince of Wales, each have visited them to witness their operations, and Harvard Business School students have studied them. In April, Columbia University invited a representative of the Dabbawalas to New York to present their approach to its own students.

What makes the Dabbawalas so remarkable? They achieve such exemplary performance, in part, by adopting Six Sigma management techniques. With Six Sigma, managers work to decrease variance in and achieve greater control over six areas of their organizations: materials, methods, machines, manpower, measurement, and Mother Nature. In doing so, they significantly reduce the chance that their organizations will deliver defective products or services.

In 2007, I taught a Six Sigma course to MBA students at the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business in Lexington; since 2008, I’ve presented a mandatory two-week Six Sigma class in the MBA program at the Technological Educational Institute of Piraeus in Athens, Greece. I’ve delivered the training to business leaders at companies such as India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the Kuwait Ministry for Higher Education. In each case, I am amazed to see how the approach helps diverse groups achieve exemplary results.

But is Six Sigma enough to maximize performance? The same can be asked about similar quality-control approaches, such as ISO, kaizen, total quality management, or lean management. While these methods have proven to be useful ways for businesses to improve their operations, they all are missing one key component: the development of internal excellence via the practice of meditation and mindfulness.

The Case of Kumbh Mela

A few years ago, I had an “aha moment” in which I realized how much internal excellence is required to achieve truly exemplary performance. It was after I read “Pop-up Megacity Is a Lesson for India,” a March 2013 article by Victor Mallet for the Financial Times. The article describes in detail Kumbh Mela, a religious festival held every 12 years in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. The festival is considered the largest gathering of human beings on the planet, attracting tens of millions of pilgrims. The most recent Kumbh Mela, held earlier this year, attracted 100 million pilgrims.

For each festival, the Uttar Pradesh government erects a temporary tent city to house these devotees, complete with roads, sanitation, food, health services, electricity, and water; it is built and dismantled with nearly seamless efficiency. And, yet, the city of Prayagraj delivers those same services to its permanent citizens with astronomically high rates of defectiveness. In his FT article, Mallet brings attention to this incongruity by exploring this question: If the government can achieve such great performance in its tent city, why couldn’t that performance be replicated in Prayagraj, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, or for that matter, in the entire country? If India replicated the tent city’s strategies, it would be a developed nation in no time.

Mallet asked the Prayagraj commissioner how the 100,000 workers the government hires to erect the tent city achieve such great performance. The commissioner’s answer was eye-opening for me. He said, “The employees knew they were doing a sacred task; the tent city was for the pilgrims.”

Internal excellence has everything to do with whether human beings approach their tasks with or without meaning.

The Dabbawalas’ work and the Kumbh Mela festival show that, in order to achieve exemplary external performance, human beings also need to develop high levels of internal excellence. Internal excellence has nothing to do with race, religion or caste, gender, national origin, or political affiliation; rather, it has everything to do with whether human beings approach their tasks with meaning or without meaning. It has to do with whether they are driven primarily by positive emotions, which ascend toward the noble, or by negative emotions, which descend to the wicked.

I call this the “Scale of Excellence.” At the top of the scale are positive emotions such as unconditional love, kindness, empathy, and compassion; these emotions lead us to embrace attributes such as truthfulness, honesty, and equanimity. At the bottom of the scale are negative emotions such as anger, hatred, hostility, resentment, and fear; these emotions lead us to embody attributes such as deceptiveness, dishonesty, and injuriousness. Some of us occupy one extreme or the other, but most of us have emotions that fall, most of the time, somewhere in between the noble and the wicked.

I believe that the goal of every human should be to rise as high on this scale as possible. But as I thought more about the Dabbawalas and Kumbh Mela, I understood for the first time that even as individuals and companies strive for external excellence, their lack of internal excellence will lead to suboptimal performance. However, if they address the internal state of their workers, their performance will dramatically improve.

In Pursuit of Internal Excellence

In January, I was able to arrange a meeting with the president of the Mumbai Dabbawalas Association. From our conversation, it became clear that the Dabbawalas’ source for internal excellence was bhakti—their devotion to God. In Hinduism, it is not possible for a person to cultivate bhakti—one either has it or one does not. Fortunately, bhakti is not the only route to internal excellence. The practice of meditation and yoga can lead there as well.

Several American enterprises have recognized the importance of internal excellence to external performance. For example, large corporations such as Google, IBM, and Aetna Insurance reportedly now have chief mindfulness officers. Major science publications, medical journals, and business publications have carried full-length articles on the benefits of meditation for health and wellness.

In 2016, the Chicago Cubs, an American Major League Baseball team, won the World Series championship after a drought of 108 years. The Cubs’ leadership credits some part of the team’s win to an attention to internal excellence. A November 3, 2016, article in Time describes the five-person team that led players through exercises in mindfulness, visualization, and meditation. As Josh Lifrak, director of mental skills for the Cubs since 2014, puts it in the article: “Better humans make better players.”

Another example from sports includes the Seattle Seahawks of America’s National Football League. That team’s coaches say that yoga and meditation played a big role in the team’s 2014 Super Bowl win, according to an August 21, 2013, ESPN story. Players reported receiving so much benefit from these practices that the team made yoga classes a mandatory part of player workouts.

With this new understanding, in 2014, I, too, started including the science behind internal excellence and the practice of meditation in my Six Sigma class in Athens. So far, I’ve seen tangible results. Students indicate improvements in everything from their ability to stay centered during stressful moments to the quality of their sleep.

Going Beyond Mindfulness

As educators, we have a practical reason for wanting to help our students develop internal excellence. The more they cultivate internal excellence, the more they will be able to achieve exemplary performance for their businesses, for their communities, and for society as a whole.

However, it’s important to point out that mindfulness, by itself, does not enhance internal excellence. The process is more complex—so complex, in fact, that Jim Kowall, a physician and theoretical physicist, and I co-authored an entire book to explain the scientific framework for external and internal excellence. It takes us 18 chapters to delve into everything from the true meaning of the 5,000-year-old practice of yoga to the impact of mantras on the body’s organs and various systems.

This framework provides a foundation for my teaching. For example, I teach a form of meditation that involves repeating a mantra—a meaningless word—over and over in the mind. The trick, I tell my students, is not to control the mind but to simply continue chanting the word, bringing the mind back to the mantra each time it wanders. That is all. In a matter of weeks, students find that their minds spend more time on chanting and less time wandering.

All business schools should make room for the cultivation of internal excellence.

My Six Sigma classes are largely devoted to helping students use their rational minds to analyze data and improve their performance, but the opposite is true during meditation. In meditation, their rational minds should go on well-deserved vacations.

There are global implications to incorporating such practices in our business programs and to linking internal excellence to external performance more deliberately in our teaching. For instance, we can see that developed nations have far fewer defects in their governments and infrastructures than developing nations—in fact, the ultimate irony might be that India, the very culture that is the ancient home of the practices of internal excellence, is itself in dire need of it. At the same time, developed nations cannot become complacent if they wish to keep their own decline at bay. By training our students in these practices, we will graduate leaders who can help not only businesses, but also nations, come closer to exemplary performance in all their activities.

Making Time for Practice

Paramahansa Yogananda, a well-known yogi who who died in 1952, once said that he “looks to a model world that combines the best qualities of ‘Efficient America’ and ‘Spiritual India.’” As I see it, “Efficient America” describes Six Sigma and “Spiritual India” describes internal excellence. I believe all business leaders and business students should be exposed to a mindfulness practice, in which they learn at least one structured, disciplined, and data-driven approach to bringing these two worlds together.

That means that all business schools should make room in their curricula for the cultivation of internal excellence—it is simply too important to ignore. Due to time constraints, I suggest starting by incorporating short 21-minute sessions in a variety of techniques. For instance, courses could introduce 21-minute practices in asanas (yoga poses) for muscle flexibility, pranayam (breathing exercises), and a variety of meditation techniques. I must stress that students should engage in meditation during class time, not only as homework. Only in class can we help students properly learn the techniques and reflect on how the practice affects their lives.

Yes, the business curriculum is already crowded. But remember the success achieved by the Dabbawalas, by the builders at Kumbh Mela, by the Cubs and Seahawks, and by an ever-growing number of business leaders. Business school graduates who are trained in mindfulness will be more in demand as more companies become aware of the link between internal excellence and external performance.

My own experience shows that students see positive differences after just a single semester of mindfulness practices—they report improvements in their academic performance, sleep, ability to concentrate, and ability to cope with stressful situations. Just think what they could accomplish if they embrace a lifetime of practice. It is well worth making the time to teach mindfulness and meditation in our programs. The choice is ours.

Deshpande is a visiting professor of management at the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics in Lexington. He also is a professor emeritus and former chair of the chemical engineering department at the University of Louisville, as well as a co-author of The Nature of Ultimate Reality and How It Can Transform Our World: Evidence from Modern Physics.

Pradeep B. Deshpande
President and CEO, Six Sigma and Advanced Controls
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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