Category Archives: Amazing Events

Headwinds

I can’t help but be startled by the contrast.

I spent the better part of last week with colleagues and guests at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis.  The annual gathering features recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates and many others whose passions are about peace-making.  In this year’s edition, Winds of Peace was invited to host a dialogue about the potential impact of cooperatives on post-conflict societies.  In the session, our colleague Rene Mendoza offered his research conclusions about what constitutes strong cooperatives, how all of the “actors” in the cooperative chain sometimes unknowingly contribute to a lack of fairness to the small producer, and how Fair Trade isn’t always fair.

Our session featured representatives from all quarters of the coffee cooperative chain: producers, buyers, roasters, funders, cooperative associations, consultants and even academics.   They came from Europe, Central America, South America, Canada and the U.S.  We sought as many perspectives as we could find to consider the research and join in the discussion about where and how improvements might be made on behalf of the small producer, and in the process contribute to better chances at creating more peaceful societies.  The gathering was an impressive one, made even more so because of the intensity that they brought to the Forum: these were people who were serious about the topic and, especially, to the notion of contributing to peace.

We heard stories from peasant farmers and the nature of perseverance.  We listened to the findings about premium payments in the Fair Trade and Organic markets and how that money often never reaches the farmers who grow the crops.  We heard stories of progress, for women, for peasant farmers, for struggling organizations attempting to fight the currents of political and monied interests.  We learned about the importance of transparency, of walking in another’s shoes, collaborative work, the importance of “the common good.”  And we felt the passionate undercurrent of an eclectic group of people seeking, in their own way, a means of peacemaking.

And then there was the news coverage this week at the U.N.

The President of the United States openly taunted the leader of North Korea, in front of the rest of the world, by referring to him as “rocket man.”  In the same breath, he stated flatly that, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”  Later in the week, the leader of the free world, in addressing African leaders, twice referred to the African nation “Nambia.”  Unfortunately, there is no such country.  The chief peacemaker in the world did not know the name of the country to which he referred.

In quoting the President I imply no judgment as to his intelligence or the soundness of his political strategies; all persons on the planet can judge for themselves the appropriateness of the President’s position. I only note the stark contrast between last week’s energies toward building peace, and this week’s headlines threatening an annihilation.

I can’t help but be startled by the contrast….

 

Working from the Outside

As a U.S. private foundation, Winds of Peace has been providing development assistance in Nicaragua for more than 30 years.  Most of that time and effort has been rendered on the “inside,” hand-in-hand with the members of the cooperatives and associations and networks with who we have partnered.

It has been very personal work.  We can describe the organizations.  We can remember where they are and the circumstances in which their people live.  We can name names.    That accompaniment is a condition of our work, being “on the ground” where there is little access, few outsider visits and sparse resources.  It’s being with partners on the inside, helping to find a small opening where opportunity might be waiting on the other side.  It’s still our model, still the way that we will continue to work in Nicaragua.  But we also have added a component to such work, this time from the “outside.”

The Nobel Peace Prize Forum is an event which Winds of Peace has sponsored for many years.  The Forum exists as the only sanctioned event under the Nobel Peace Prize name outside of the award selection itself.  Annually, it has brought together past peace laureates, activists, scholars and those working in their own ways and in their own niches for peace and justice, “on the inside,” where life is actually lived.  This year’s Forum will be held in Minneapolis, Minnesota during September 13-16.  It will feature many stories of peace-building and human development.  And it will include work underwritten by Winds of Peace.

In what is billed as a “high-level dialogue” session, major research and “inside” work on cooperatives will be presented by Foundation colleague Rene Mendoza.  Rene is recognized as a development innovator and engages in “participatory action research” to facilitate actions by cooperative members themselves.  Specifically, Rene will highlight the  efforts and conclusions from cooperatives in various countries.  And he’ll emphasize the importance and stabilizing impact of cooperatives in societies emerging from periods of conflict, and how their financial impacts serve as an essential ingredient for both economic and social well-being. He has also assembled a panel of six cooperative members from Central and South America to join in the conversation and share their experiences of cooperative life and meaning.  Yet, that’s not the full extent of the session.

The rest of the invited audience will be comprised of individuals from cooperative-supporting organizations, entities which have in some way positioned themselves as partners with the small cooperatives, whether in the roles of funders, marketers, associations, Fair Trade and Organic certifiers, buyers, roasters or retailers.  They are (hopefully) big names.  The presentations are designed to invite dialogue with this invited audience about where the entire process chain is working well, where it isn’t, and how collectively all actors might make it more valuable to the essential focus:  the producer and his/her family.

As a result of the discourse, the participants will be encouraged to arrive at an objective or change that might be affected during the ensuing 12 months, a plan of action which will be shared with the at-large Forum attendees.  In 2018, some of those discourse participants will then return to the Forum for a report-out on success, and whether the conclusions and actions identified in 2017 really made an impact.  It’s a very action and accountability effort, unlike many conference end results, and one that Forum organizers (and sponsors, like WPF) hope can bring real impact to cooperatives as major peace components.  It’s “outside work,” changing the focus temporarily to the ambient world surrounding places like rural Nicaragua.  Consider this blog entry as an invitation to experience at least this part of the Forum in the Fall.

Why?  Because sometimes circumstances don’t allow us to achieve our needs fully by ourselves.  There is not one among us who has reached full potential and well-being on our own.  Sometimes, we require the intervention of “outside work….”

Step Lightly

I recently took the opportunity to travel to some places I had never been before.  Specifically, my wife and I visited for the first time the jewels of the Southwest United States:  Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.  Such an experience is many things: renewing, educational, inspiring, humbling, a privilege and even existential in nature.  Especially at this time of great upheaval within our country, the opportunity to “pull back,” even for a short time, provided a welcome relief.  And an important lesson.

Most of the sites we visited are well-known to those who have visited the Parks, and the trails leading to these vantage points are well-marked and well-trod by millions of visitors before us.  And at each of those trailheads, the Park Service feels obligated to post a message to its visitors, one which might seem unnecessary in the shadows of majestic peaks and rims of jaw-dropping chasms, but which is offered nonetheless.  It’s a small sign which reads, “Your Steps Matter.”                                                

The sign is simply a reminder of the transience of these landscapes and our impacts upon them.  They are fragile.  People too often have the desire to leave their own imprints on these monuments of creation, as if to satisfy a need to make a statement of existence, to leave their own modern-day petroglyphs about which future visitors might wonder.   Perhaps it was the reflective nature of our trip or my tendency to look for hidden meanings where none may be intended, but the words on the sign prompted other thoughts for me.

Our steps do matter, whether for the health of ground vegetation, rock formations or water quality in the parks.   Trees that have withstood the extremes of nature for more than 100 years are nonetheless dependent upon “breathing space” from the hordes of human visitors who come to these sites constantly to witness the immense majesty of the natural world.  It’s among the places where it’s not OK to take “the road less traveled,” as Frost suggested, and where we’re discouraged to blaze our own trails, in deference to the survival of other life.

In light of the signage, I felt a certain pride at keeping to the paths, as though I was contributing something good to the welfare and sustainability of the parks.  I know that the notion is ridiculous, but staying on the trails was perhaps the one act of preservation that I could make.  But that same sense of self-righteousness led me to consider other steps in my life.

Steps everywhere in our lives matter.  Every stride taken in our journey makes an imprint, leaves a trace, impacts our surroundings. Like the proverbial beating of butterfly wings that affects weather patterns on the other side of the world, we are part of a global tapestry wherein all of us are inextricably dependent upon and impacted by each other.  Choices we make in the U.S. have an impact in Nicaragua.  We might elect to trespass over someone else’s space, and might even be able to “get away with it,” and to do so without detection.  But the space will be changed forever, in ways that we may never know. How and where we walk are matters of choice: we can elect to tread lightly and with respect, or to trample according to our own narrow wills.  Either way, we leave a story for those who follow.  Like our children.  Or our grandchildren.  Or our children’s children’s children.

Our steps are our legacies, like those artifacts we covet from millennia past.  They are the messages we leave behind that attempt to declare our existence and portray the kinds of lives we led.  What a pity if, in our wakes, all that remains are traces of once-resplendent times and places….

 

For Example

During the recent Certificate Program conducted at the foot of Peñas Blancas, participants were able to study the methodologies of Lean Continuous Improvement, a practice designed to remove waste of all forms from our daily work.  It’s a very precise process improvement technique, thus one that is not quickly or easily assimilated by most people.  As a result, teachers of this process, which really involves transforming the way one looks at everything in a new way, frequently use examples to illustrate the concept.  Our Lean leader for the week, Brian Kopas of FabCon Precast, selected examples which would be familiar to the rural Nica audience and yet demonstrative of the ideas of Lean.  One example that week stood out .

The story is of a successful conference center which, among other amenities, includes on-site lodging accommodations, a beautiful setting, exercise opportunities, and a full complement of meals for their clientele.  It’s an operation that has sought to constantly make improvements in the range and quality of its offerings, so an attempt to streamline kitchen operations and meal services seemed like an obvious initiative.

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The “Before” Diagram

The kitchen staff gladly accepted the participation of several observers from outside the enterprise, to make notes of wasted time and motion, to document actions and capture the flow of work and the demands upon the staff members.  Using the Lean tools of observation and measuring, together they created a pictorial  snapshot of the breadth of the kitchen staff work for just one meal of the day.

The visual was shocking, to say the least: each one of the colored lines in the photograph represents the travel of one of the staff members in preparation of one meal.  It turned out that the staff members were walking miles within the confines of their kitchen, and most often incurring the high mileage as a result of inefficient placement of materials or redundant movement.

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“After”

The graphic example provided an immediate blueprint for improved customer service and timeliness, less strain on the staff and better care of kitchen implements and ingredients. Upon actually seeing what a morning preparation looked like, the staff members and their outside “helpers” set out to remove as much of the wasted time and energy as they could, cleaning up the process so that it looked more like that to the right.

Granted, the travel lines were not drawn in this “after” diagram, but the open spaces in the drawing were indicative of the clean-up that was possible, all in the course of a few hours of observation, discussion, modeling and decision-making.  (It didn’t hurt that these particular Lean practitioners decorated their “after” diagram with flowers along the edges, either!)

The example resonated with the participants in the Certificate Program, partly because the topic- cooking and eating- are very familiar and important activities.  In part, they understood because they recognized what those spaghetti-style travel lines represented in the way of excess steps and the drain that such extra movements create during the course of a day’s labors.  They could identify with the notion that there is opportunity for improvement in even the most repetitive, everyday kinds of activities.

But most of all, they attendees could identify with the example because it was of their own making.  Because the example described above was one of the three Lean projects actually undertaken during our week at the conference site at Peñas Blancas.  The “students” grabbed the Lean concepts voraciously, asked questions about process steps, immersed themselves in the work of the kitchen at 5:00 one morning, making themselves part of the the morning’s business, quizzing the kitchen workers, empathizing with difficulties and frustrations likely never before observed.  When they had applied the tools that Brian had provided, they went steps further, preparing written analysis and reasoning for proposed changes, estimating the impacts and the costs of such alterations, and even adding the beauty of those wildflowers along the border of their diagram.  (I have never seen that before!)  The best example of the entire week was the one that the Nicas produced themselves.

The reality of our time spent with participants on the topic of continuous improvement methodology is that they not only absorbed the ideas, but ran with them,  embraced them as though they were hanging on to lifelines in a relentless storm.  Even as newly-initiated to Lean, they added their own signatures to the results, thereby further underscoring the notions of continuous improvement.  Indeed, I have witnessed few Kaizen projects, in my own company and of even longer duration and study, that were as exhilarating as this one.

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Preparing the Ideas Visual
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Inputs from Everyone
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Brian’s Teaching Absorbed

It’s an example I intend to use in the future, with other groups of curious learners.  And it’s one that will utterly dissolve any excuse that the concepts are simply too difficult for some folks to apply.  What a week….

 

A Little Bird Told Me

Sometimes, the way things happen leaves me breathless.

At the Certificate Program conducted in rural Nicaragua during the week of September 5, I prepared for two and one-half days of presentations on the topic of open book management.  I have a long history with the subject, having adopted an aggressive open book management initiative at Foldcraft Co. in the 1990’s and having spoken frequently on the topic, especially within the employee-ownership community.  This should have been familiar ground for me.

But sharing OBM experiences at Foldcraft is a lot different than trying to teach the essential components over the course of a few days, especially to an audience which has heard little of the concept previously, produces crops as opposed to commercial seating, has likely received limited  other education of any kind, and which does not speak or understand the English language.  I confess to experiencing reservations about my ability to effectively engage and teach.  Nerves, even.

I began Monday morning tentatively, feeling the group and measuring the level of its receptivity, as I always do.  But my audience quickly calmed me down.  I sensed their partnership in this learning event immediately, a feeling of collaboration that fed my own confidence and, in turn, their own.  We took off together in ways that presenters often dream about, with interest, enthusiasm and absorption mutually fueling our energy.

This rural Nicaraguan cohort proved to be among the most interested and receptive groups with whom I have ever worked!  I had quietly hoped for careful listening and signs of eagerness; what I experienced was rapt attention and ideas being internalized even as I spoke.  They exhibited a hunger, perhaps giving example to the notion that “there must be a hunger before food for thought can satisfy the need.”

By Tuesday, my sense was that our learning together was becoming something special, a collaboration which had begun to feed upon itself, elevating to not just a good session for conceptual learning, but a memorable event that might, in fact, hold transformative capacities.  I think we were all sensing it.  And then, a little bird told me that it was so.

I had just begun reciting the tale named, “The Snowflake.”  For the uninitiated, I reproduce it here:

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a tiny bird asked a wild dove.

“It is nothing but a crystal, so it is nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.

“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the tiny bird said.  “I sat on the branch of a fir tree, close to its trunk, when it began to snow.  Not heavily, not in a raging blizzard.  But just like in a dream, without a wind, without any violence.  Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch.  Their number was exactly 3,741,952.  When the 3,741,953rd flake dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing as you say, the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the tiny bird flew away.

The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for change to come to the world.”

On Tuesday, I had no sooner uttered the words, “a tiny bird,” when a hummingbird suddenly flew into our meeting room through the open door and landed, stunned, upon the floor.  I stopped talking. The participants went silent, watching this little creature in wonder.  They looked from the bird to me, as if somehow I had orchestrated its arrival at that very moment for effect.  But I was as stunned as the hummingbird and, realizing that, the class erupted in utter amazement and joy.

Yeris, a beekeeper and friend of creatures great and small, scooped up the hummingbird, cradling it as though its arrival had been a most special gift.  It remained quite still in his open hands, as if willing to share the beauty and symbolism of its presence.  It was then gently escorted from the room, to be administered a few drops of sugar water in order to revive its energy for flight.  Yeris returned to the room with thumbs up, and within minutes the intrusion was complete.

Some in the room looked to each other to understand what had occurred.  Others bore enormous smiles in realization that they had just witnessed something rather incredible.  I noticed two in the group who appeared to wipe away tears.  My own heart was absolutely racing.  When I had sufficiently composed myself, I could only ask whether the group felt blessed in some way, to which there was universal assent.  Do you believe in messages?

“The Snowflake” was intended to be but a small contribution to the week’s lessons, albeit a powerful one.  Amidst days of workshop rigors, knowledge transfer and difficult exercises, the story occupied but a tiny fraction of our time.  But on occasion, those fractions can become like the weight of a snowflake, significant in their importance and memorable for reminding us what we are capable of knowing and feeling….

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