Reflection: The Art of Hansei

Around this time of year, most of us, and our businesses, tend to slow down just a bit from the normal dawn-to-dusk mad dash. We smile a bit more. We wave people in before us in traffic, and let others with less in their shopping carts go first in the grocery store. And we reflect.

When I was working with Toyota, I learned the art of hansei (pronounced hahn-say). Hansei is the Japanese word for reflection. But its meaning is closer to introspection. Hansei finds its roots in Eastern philosophy and religion, but it is a profound skill to be mastered. Japanese school children are taught from kindergarten how to perform hansei, and it is a vital part of learning and improving.

The key insight is this: Hansei is performed regularly, as a discipline, irrespective of performance! In other words, whether you got an A or a C on your report card, you conduct hansei to better understand the process that lead to the specific result.

In business, the fruit of a formal hansei used for planning purposes is new insights which can used to set new goals, strategies, and directions.

But here’s the thing: most us don’t reflect often enough, or consider it a tool worthy enough to use regularly. Generally we do a post-mortem when we fail at something, but too often the goal is fault-finding, not learning. And mostly we pop champagne if we exceed all expectations, and leave it with a big attaboy. But there is no real learning in that, because whether you miss a mark under or over, there’s a gap there that demands better understanding. IF we want to get better, that is.

The late Peter Drucker suggested a practical reflection method which amounts to a daily routine of recording in a personal journal your key decisions and actions, along with a projection of the expected outcome. You then review your performance and satisfaction, feeding back from outcomes to expectations. He suggested getting additional input from a superior, peer or subordinate.

Over time, trends show up, pointing out strengths and weaknesses. Drucker wrote, “I have been doing this for some fifteen to twenty years now. And every time I do it I am surprised. And so is everyone who has ever done this.”

I have a simple daily hansei regimen that I look forward to (with a glass of good Malbec) which has definitely yielded some surprises, in the form of both good and not-so-good ideas. Here’s what to do:

  1. Make time. Try to set aside at least 15 minutes per day to begin with. But don’t be limited either way…if you only have 5 minutes, use it. If you’re on a roll, don’t stop.
  2. Review experience. Use the Army After Action Review technique of answering three simple questions as they relate to your day: What was supposed to happen? (What did you think would happen?) What actually happened? What accounts for any differences or gaps between what you thought or expected to happen and what actually happened?
  3. Spot trends. As time progresses (and after you’ve done this for a while), note any recurring themes, and write down any potential connections among seemingly unconnected things.
  4. Riff and project. Think of a few “what if” ideas that come to mind based on the first three steps. Jot down opportunities to test out those new ideas. Take your “what ifs” and turn them into “if-then” hypotheses: what do you think will happen if you do (X)? Make some quick notes—to do’s, not-to-do’s, etc.—that will initiate your thoughts and provide some preliminary direction.

Hansei is meant to help you improve your performance and creativity by getting your thought and actions better aligned by making them more visible to yourself. The hardest part, of course, is step one. It helps if you don’t view reflection as a chore or strict linear writing exercise. So you might want to avoid using a lined journal. Instead, consider perhaps my current favorite, the Dot Grid Cahier, offered by Behance.

As you head into 2011, do like Drucker said, and use the art of hansei to surprise yourself!