My head spent the days immersed in matters like employee ownership, organizational strengthening, empowerment, open book management, continuous improvement, transparency and the wisdom inherent in organizations.
My heart was in Nicaragua, at the foot of Peñas Blancas, with more than 50 peasant producers who are spending the week in another edition of the Certificate Program, an on-site immersion into holistic development of their farms, coops, families and futures. I have come to know many of these folks, having worked with them in previous settings, and I miss being with them.
My body was at home in Iowa, trying to figure out how to respond to a mysterious malady that inflames all of my joints and aches my body’s systems like a bad case of the flu. I need to learn what is wrong and how to make it right. I’m saddened not to be in Nicaragua and frustrated at the reasons for it.
So my time was divided among three states of being this week. And as I reflected on my uneasiness at this state of affairs, it dawned on me that what I was experiencing was not unlike the normal circumstances of our Certificate Program participants. Their lives are under the stresses of being torn in multiple directions, as a way of life.
The heads of many peasants are filled with trying to discern what’s happening within their country. Investment has all but vanished. Foreign aid organizations have pulled out long ago. There is enormous tension between the Ortega government and the Civic Alliance, giving ongoing potency to the anxious uncertainties of every day life, even in the countryside.
The peasants must have found it hard to concentrate on their organizations, with their heads already immersed in matters like: What is really happening in our country? What is true? What do I have to do to protect my family and myself? Can I trust my neighbor? How do I process all of it? Of course, all of this is context for the ongoing, every day questions about climate, weather, the cost of inputs, the income from harvest, the presence and absence of rain, maintaining the farm, worrying about kids. Oh yes, and the ever-present worry about health, of the family, of the spouse, of self.
Their hearts are firmly in Nicaragua, even if at times they cannot actually be there. Despite the warped perceptions of a U.S. president, under normal conditions Nicaraguans essentially have little desire to leave Nicaragua. It’s their home. It’s both their inheritance and their future assignment to their children. They treasure their history and culture no less than any U.S. citizen does about their North American homeland. But if conditions and opportunities diminish to the point of complete destitution, then alternatives become realities, and the idea of immigration emerges.
Their hearts know, deep inside, that only new ways of managing the coops will bring about greater success, despite the urges to cling to the old ways, the means by which survival has been possible for generations. There is heartbreak in leaving old ways, the comfortable ways, behind. It can even feel like betrayal. There is anguish in having to choose the unknown.
Their hearts remember that the land that once belonged to their elders, and that should be destined to belong to the youth, is a sacred trust, an honor-bound commitment to family. But their hearts also are fatigued from the consumption of energy and spirit by injustices that so often infect the poor. My acquaintances in Nicaragua are strong of heart, unflinching in the face of crushing poverty, but also realists who are willing to break their own hearts for survival.
Their bodies are the resilient homes for hopeful spirits. Their physical bodies are asked to endure and thrive in the face of limitations on healthcare, nutrition, clean water, education opportunities, healthy incomes and environmental health. In the face of huge physical demands, the rural farmers accept and adapt to such challenges as a matter of course, and largely fulfill the requirements of their days.
I cannot help but imagine the course of activities undertaken by such a farmer experiencing my current set of symptoms. With some embarrassment, I imagine perseverance that puts my days in these weeks to shame. In many ways, our Nica colleagues are far more adaptable to change than we might think.
Comparisons are a likely outcome, I suppose, when time is abundant, when my head is teeming with ideas, when my heart is restless and my body compromised. But there is substantial learning available despite it all, and I find that my Nica colleagues can teach me well, even from a long distance away….
in Nicaragua, working with peasant farmers on issues of cooperativism and continuous improvement.
If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out (Jesús, Lc 29.40)
“I already saw that movie”, said the drunk, on seeing the animation of the lion that roars at the beginning of many movies. In the beginning of the 1990s, dozens of women from Marcala (Honduras) began to be trained to defend their rights and cultivate an awareness of equality, to “marry to live together and not to be the property of anyone”, “leave the house to participate in workshops on learning”, and “overcome conformism”. Over the years they understood that that awareness and that fight against violence would require generating their own resources, “on earning some money you can decide what to buy for the house”, so they envisioned an organization that would help them to have land, produce on it, and sell their products. So in 1988 they founded the Coordinator of Women Peasants of La Paz (COMUCAP), and learned that “organization is for bettering oneself and not for being envious”, and that “it is beautiful that both the man and the woman work, you have what you need to eat and you can rest.”
As COMUCAP grew in number of members and economically they acquired investments for processing coffee, aloe and juices; they exported coffee and sold soap, shampoo and juice; they bought land and planted it;M and many projects came in. Nevertheless in 2012 they learned that their organization of 283 women members was about to fall off a cliff. What had happened? What had pushed them to the edge? How could they move away from that cliff? In this article we try to respond to these questions, precisely to “not trip over the same stone twice.” Behind the animation of the roaring lion there is a movie that has not yet been seen. Let´s look at it.
Crisis Situation in COMUCAP
An independent audit revealed that the debt of COMUCAP was close to one million dollars, that the assets of the organization had a lien on them due to the debt, that a piece of property bought for $150,000 had not been turned over to the organization, and that it was not clear where resources from international aid had gone. This information raised the eyebrows of the members in the 2012 assembly. Other data followed: 100% of the coffee exported was organic and fair trade, in the last 3 cycles prior to 2012 they had exported close to 10,000 qq of export coffee; a good part of that coffee was bought off of individuals who were not members, close to 1,000 qq of coffee was from the coordinator of COMUCAP herself, whose quality surprisingly scored at 85, while the coffee of the members was equal to or less than 81; the yields (from 1 qq of cherry coffee to export coffee) were dropping; the premiums for organic and fair trade were confused with project financed by international aid, making it impossible for the members to see that they had not received neither premiums. The crisis was even more harsh because it coincided with the arrival of the coffee rust on the plants, that not only lowered their production yields, but in many cases anthracnose came behind the rust leaving the coffee fields with dead trees.
What had happened? From the beginning the board of directors had granted the coordinator a General Power of Attorney, with which she was able to take loans out of the bank, buy and sell the assets of the organization and sign international aid projects. They had technical and administrative staff subordinated to the coordinator, whose daughter was the commercialization manager for all the COMUCAP products, her sister was the manager of the aloe plant, and her son in law was the coffee manager. The board of directors was used only to sign checks. The reports to the annual assembly appeared to be “sharp” bathed in a sea of numbers, reports that were legitimated by the representatives of international aid as “transparent”. The audit and fair trade and organic certification inspections would confirm every year that “everything was in order.”
The coffee rust and the “human rust” had bashed the organization of the 256 members. Obviously all those losses and debts had to be assumed by the members. All this is like the animation of the roaring lion, because this type of movie is repeated in many parts of Latin America. Nevertheless, as the philosopher Heraclitus said, though we bathe in the same river, we never do it in the same water; the next section responds to the question about what things pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the precipice. Let´s sit down to watch this film.
Process that pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the cliff
Problem: COMUCAP in 2012 was on the edge of the cliff. What pushed it therer? To help, let´s use the “5 whys” of the methodology of Lean: find the cause of the problem, then the cause of that cause, until we reach the root cause. This methodology was developed in the 1950s by Taiichi Ohno, Toyota pioneer (http://www.toyota-global.com/company/toyota_traditions/quality/mar_apr_2006.html). It is the methodology that is behind Aristotle´s idea in seeking the origin of movement: “everything that moves is moved by something” and there is a “motor” that moves everything. That is why we ask ourselves 5 times “why”. See the Table with the 5 “whys” for identifying the “tripping stone.”
Why was COMUCAP on the “brink of a cliff” –debts, poor administrative management and a hold on their assets? The members and aid organizations listened to information in the annual assemblies, but it was information that was not telling them what was really happening. The staff was subordinated to the family that coordinated COMUCAP and the board of directors relegated to being “only for show”, to sign checks; even a leader turned into an employee for two years signed checks as if she were the president. In other words, they would produce information in a disloyal way for the organization and in a way subordinated to the coordinating family.
Why did they not have access to the real information. A good part of the 256 women had been trained for 10, 15 and 20 years in negotiating their rights, managing funds for groups, political advocacy and values like transparency and equality. Why then did they not demand the real information? “Because we fell asleep”, said one of the historic leaders: they stood by. Ther trust in the coordinator was blind and total, because since 1993 she had trained them in women´s rights, and used to tell them that “she worked for the women”, she was from a family with resources and they nearly worshipped her: “having what she needs to live and she works for us” they would say with gratitude, feeling themselves blessed. One member could not be mistrustful when the reports would be presented before the international aid organizations, who would repeat “everything is in order”. One member could not prove that she did not receive the organic nor fair trade premiums for her coffee when the fair trade and organic certification audits would conclude “that everything was in order.” If everything was in order, it was logical to conclude that the information that they were being presented was correct, and it was obvious that if a member dissented, she was running the risk of not being a beneficiary of the next project. It was like feeling like an ant under a transnational elephant that grew and grew.
Why did they stand by? Because they left the decisions in the hands of the coordinator who had an administrative role, and was part of the staff of the organization, not elected by the assembly, as were the women on the board. The decisions that should have been made in the cooperative bodies (board of directors, committees and assembly) and supervised (oversight board or auditing body), were taken on by the coordinator. For the members the coordinator was “the gate” to the market and to international aid projects, and for the fair trade buyers and the aid agencies, the coordinator was the gate to the women leaders and the members. If a aid representative would visit a member, she would say marvelous things about the coordinator, and if a member visited Germany, the buyers would say wonderful things about the coordinator. So COMUCAP functioned as if it were a private enterprise where the 256 members were the poor beneficiaries, defined as such by the coordinator herself: “the women of the board are not capable of administering even 100 lempiras ($5).” This woman who did training on rights saw them as ignorant and those who financed projects and bought coffee saw her as the “Honduran Che Guevara.”
Why did they leave the decisions in the hands of the administration? Because the millennium institution of “we always need a patron” absorbed them. The women had been trained to defend their rights in their homes and to seek equality with their husbands. And this they were doing, supported by an office of COMUCAP itself. Nevertheless, they did not expect that “the patron” would appear in the “new guise”: who would subordinate the staff with loans and salaries, control the members on the basis of projects, and the leaders through travel allowances, and ran COMUCAP as something independent from the members. Like a large estate owner who believes that the land and everything on it is his, or like the holder of an encomienda in the colonial period that would receive land “including the indians that lived on it”, she would repeat to them: “without me COMUCAP would not exist, everything that is here is because of me” – meaning that everything was hers.
Why did the old “patron-client” institution absorb them? Because even though the women woke up about their rights and the importance of generating their income to sustain that awareness, COMUCAP was an external product with members dispersed in several municipalities, started on the basis of external resources and not on the basis of the contributions of the members; and because they did not learn to lead the organization through its organs (assembly, board, oversight board), and in accordance with its rules (statutes), because “we felt it was far away, someone else´s”. That is why they would hold an assembly once a year, as if an organization would have so few decisions that merited meeting only once a year; the board members were content to sign checks and travel every now and then; the groups never met with their boards; a member who needed something from COMUCAP would not propose it in the group meeting, nor to her group board, she thought it was not her right but a favor, which is why she would go directly to the “big honcho.” This lack of ownership and effectiviness in leading the organization left COMUCAP in conditions where the proverb “in an open treasure even the just sin” became a reality. COMUCAP had become a “factory” where a member would become a beneficiary, a leader subordinated, and a coordinator with a social vocation would become the big honcho (patron). Here is the root of the problem – “the motor” as Aristotle would say.
The energy to get out of the crisis
The member assembly in 2012 heard the results of the audit. There was a mixture of everything: silence, murmurs, rage, impotence, feeling of having been betrayed…Some returned to their homes, and recalling the sacrifices that they had made for so many years, cried wanting to hear an echo in the universe. Others moved to defend the offices and the coffee and aloe business of COMUCAP, because the coordinator, her family and allies did not even want to turn over the assets with liens on them. They spent 3 years in hard legal battles, negotiating with the banks, getting the aid agencies and the buyers to see the obvious facts of what was happening, getting the members to trust again, looking for money to buy coffee, looking for markets for their coffee, their aloe, their shampo and juices.
On this path they continued to wear themselves down and had financial losses. The interest and arrears for the debt grew year by year, even though negotiating they were able to get considerable relief. They lost the best coffee areas to the labor lawsuit from the ex-employees, and had expenses on lost trials. They had international coffee buyers who decided NOT to buy their coffee under the logic that “COMUCAP without the “big honcho” did not exist, and because, as one leader said, “a dozen stars will fall from the sky before they ¡recognize that they were mistaken.” And a star did fall! The representative of an aid agency recognized: “I believed in her (the coordinator); forgive me because I did not believe in what you were telling me.”
What really caused the beginning of the change in COMUCAP? Each year an audit would be done, fair trade and the organic certifiers also did audits. There were more than 17 bank accounts because the aid agencies wanted their money to be administered separately. The results indicated that none of that ensured good administration. It is very possible that without the support of two people who worked in 2 aid agencies, who detected the problem, recommended an independent audit, and accompanied the board for some time, and without the awakening of the new board, COMUCAP would now have fallen off the cliff or been completely privatized by the coordinator and her family.
Crisis happens when what should die, does not, and what should be born, does not. After 5 years COMUCAP has been able to grab ahold of some “rock” and not fall off the cliff, in contrast to the prophesy of those who opposed it. Nor has it moved away from that “cliff”, the risk that it might trip over the same “stone”, described in section 2, and fall even harder off the cliff is real. In other words, that which should die still has not died. How can it move away from the cliff, or build a bridge to cross it? For what needs to be born to happen, we suggest three steps (see attached Figure) under the sequential order that follows: awareness and vision of the members as a reference point, looking inward where their roots are, and looking outward to be accompanied.
First step, start from the awareness and vision of the women members. Awareness: “everything that exist is there because we sweated with our fellow members with the sacks of fertilizer planting coffee, aloe, cooking, leaving the family on their own.”; as Jesus would say, if they keep quiet, the stones from the aloe and coffee business and the orange and coffee farms, WOULD CRY OUT. The original vision of dozens of women: COMUCAP started to sell the products of its members and accordingly built equity in their homes and communities. To sell whose products? The products of ITS members!
Second step, finding a solution to the root of the problem, ownership and operating within the democratic mechanisms of COMUCAP. There is their new “motor”. Their “break even point” is not buying coffee from whoever and however, it is not adding new members as best as possible. It is going back and building trust in each family, each group, the board of each group, the asembly, the board of directors, the oversight board and the staff that they have. COMUCAP now has 505 members. Let us recall popular wisdom, the stronger the daughters and sons are, the stronger their parents will be – in other words, the stronger the families are, the stronger the groups will be, the stronger the groups are, the stronger their board and their staff will be, and COMUCAP will be stronger.
Third step, weave alliances with people (and organizations) like those who helped them to begin the change in 2012 and who left them the secret for getting ahead: study the reality itself, wake up to what the study finds, and be accompanied in the process of change.
For these three steps the notion of stewardship helps us: our lives are a breath in the life of the universe, our participation in an organization like COMUCAP is at the most a tenth of a human life: a leader who lives for 90 years will hold posts for less than 9 years, a salaried worker will not be there for much more than that. In other words, while we hold positions of responsibility we must give the most of ourselves serving the 505 women, many of whom are single mothers taking care of their grandchildren, assuming the roles of mother and father. Stewardship, according to Block (2013, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest), is “the willingness to be responsible for the wellbeing of the organization, working in service of those who surrond us, instead of controlling them. It is responsibility without control nor compliance”.
Can the 505 women and the organizations that consider themselves to be their allies let die what needs to die, and give birth to what need to be born? The lionesses of Marcala are roaring: this movie has barely begun.
I have written here often about some of the cooperatives with whom we work and, especially, the remarkable people encountered in these organizations. Along the way, I have shared descriptions of some of the tools that we have shared with Nica partners (like Open Book Management and Lean principles), because many rural producers have become convinced of the need for organizational strengthening. It should be no surprise that Winds of Peace Foundation regards these tools, and others that encourage inclusiveness and participation, as key to sustainable organizational strength. So do many Nica partners. But thinking that something is true does not automatically prove that it’s true. So I decided to share some data about ownership that has recently been published.
The National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) has published a new study of employee-ownership in the U.S. Now, the U.S. is not Nicaragua, and employee stock ownership is not cooperativism. But the results cited in the report focus on enterprise ownership, owning the business and social equity of an enterprise, and that definition encompasses an entire spectrum of stakeholder models. And this is a portion of what the study has found:
*Enterprise-owners in this dataset have 33% higher median income from wages overall. This holds true at all wage levels, ranging from a difference of $3,160 in annual wages for the lowest-paid employee-owners to an extra $5,000 for higher-wage workers.
*Median household net wealth among respondents is 92% higher for owners than for non-owners. This disparity holds true for the great majority of subgroups analyzed, including single women, parents raising young children, non-college graduates, and workers of color.
*Enterprise-owners of color in this data have 30% higher income from wages, 79% greater net household wealth, and median tenure in their current job 36% over non-employee-owners of color.
*For families with children ages 0 to 8 in their household, the ownership advantage translates into median household net worth nearly twice that of those without employee ownership, nearly one full year of increased job stability, and $10,000 more in annual wages.
The report is full of additional data which supports the organizational value of ownership; take a look at it for lots of details. But the picture being painted here is one of many colors: organizations that involve their workers as owners are more successful; greater opportunity comes from ownership; greater participation through ownership yields greater strength and organizational growth; there is a central tendency in us as human beings to nurture and protect that which we own.
Concurrent with the publication of this groundbreaking study was the publication of Fortune Magazine’s 2017 100 Best Companies to Work For. Of the 73 corporations recognized for their outstanding workplaces, more than half of them (35) incorporated ownership plans for their members. It’s hardly a coincidence that many of the best companies to work for are companies owned, in whole or part, by the employees or members themselves. (The Fortune list is traditionally weighted heavily toward technology and healthcare providers; the preponderance of ownership would presumably be even higher in a more representative sample of U.S. businesses.)
There is no mistaking the fact that Nicaraguan cooperatives are owned by their members, in at least the structural, legal sense. But like their U.S. employee counterparts, Nicaraguan owners need the understanding of what ownership is, of what their ownership obligations and rights are, and how their success truly rises or falls based upon the members taking responsibility, collectively. Successful ownership is not reliant upon heroes or the efforts of the few or the presence of a beneficent patron. Success follows a basic understanding of how their cooperative works, how A+B=C, and importance of each member to the whole.
So when the third Certificate Program is convened in August, there will be modules about family strategic planning and access to markets and means of improving production and quality. But at its core, the Program will be about ownership, seizing the opportunity for self-improvement by embracing both self and collective responsibility. We’ll be there to help conversations about Open Books and Lean, but the days will really be about our partners’ futures, and their appetite to own it….
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.
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.
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.
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….
During the Second Certificate Program in rural Nicaragua, held during the first week of September, participants were escorted more deeply into the worlds of open book management and Lean process improvements. Having experienced a taste of both methodologies in the First Certificate Program, conducted last year, producers expressed a desire to know more about the concepts and how to apply them. These programs are all about organizational strengthening, and these two initiatives are as important to organizational health as any strength-building efforts.
For teaching Lean, the Foundation enlisted the expertise of Brian Kopas, of Fabcon Precast in Savage, Minnesota. (Brian was an important presence at Foldcraft Co., where he honed that company’s storied strengths in continuous improvement.) Brian’s expertise and inviting demeanor won over the Nicaraguan participants thoroughly as he introduced the elements of Lean. And among those elements, Brian asked “why?” A lot.
Asking “why” is one of the core tools employed in any Lean implementation, and maybe especially so in an environment where tradition and culture play such a big role in defining activities and protocols. So Brian was quite specific in encouraging his audience to ask “why” at least five times before settling on the root cause of any problem in need of a fix. To do otherwise was to simply assume the reason for a difficulty, which can lead to missing the solution due to not knowing the real problem! “Drilling down” to the real cause of a difficulty requires discipline and patience, but leads to a much better identification of the root cause of our pain.
It’s not a usual practice for anyone, and certainly not for rural Nicaraguan producers, who have followed the habits and traditional wisdom of past generations. Think about it for a moment, as in this hypothetical sequence: your production of coffee in this cycle is down. “Why?” (Your initial observation might be that a fungus has infested part of your crop.) You might go no further in your analysis and respond by destroying your plants and starting all over again, in hopes that in the next cycle you will be luckier. Instead, Lean would have you ask “Why” has the fungus attacked. The answer this time is that the fungus affects coffee plants that have not been fully protected by proper nutrients and care. “Why?” Because there have been insufficient resources to purchase all of the necessary inputs for a successful crop. “Why?” Because the limited resources available were used for discretionary spending by each producer, rather than partially contributed to a general coop fund for a collaborative “emergency” response to threats. “Why?” Because the notion of an effectively-functioning cooperative has been lost over the years, and the organization has come to be seen as simply an access point to outside funders. After five “why’s” we might see the fungus disaster in a new light, a problem of institutional purpose and not one of plant biology.
The Certificate Program attendees became pretty good at asking the five why’s, though it’s not as easy as it may sound. As is true with most tools, it only becomes effective with practice. But over the course of our week together, participants were playfully (and effectively) asking “why” about nearly everything, a process that gradually made it clear to them the importance of the question. The hope is that the exercise becomes a habit, and then an actual tool for eliminating many of the pains of their work lives.
A treatise on the use of the “five why’s” in the Certificate Program might seem like an odd entry for a blog topic here. But in observing the impact of the tool upon the newly-introduced, it dawned on me that the process, in fact, isn’t just for the agricultural producer or factory worker or office administrator. The process of asking “why” takes us closer to the truth of whatever issue might be complicating our lives. Our human tendencies to jump to conclusions, without seeing the full extent of the issues before us, often lead us to wasteful and even dangerous end results. Seeing the true, underlying causes of our difficulties is the first step in finding solutions, to becoming truly wise.
Many rural cooperatives in Nicaragua are disintegrating. “Why?” Because they have limited access to financial and learning resources. “Why?” Because they are perceived to be poor risks for credit and education investment. “Why?” Because development agencies have little knowledge of and relationship with them. “Why?” Because the effort and cost in traveling to rural sites to listen to the peasants’ own analysis of circumstances is too great. “Why?”
I readily admit that I’m a person who looks forward to what’s next. I am a person of immense and continuous gratitude for what is in the present, but I’m also excited about what might be around the next bend, the next corner, the following day. And I think I became that way as an outgrowth of the realization that amazing and unexpected things are always coming our way. Stop for a moment and think about all of the happenings of the past week that we never anticipated, how they have impacted us individually or the broader world in which we live. Good or bad, those events were unknown to us last week at this time. I’m good at enjoying today; I’m great at anticipating tomorrow.
During the recent Certificate Program in Nicaragua, I absolutely loved presenting open book management materials to our rural attendees. But with each module over three days, I couldn’t help but feel anticipation for what the next module would bring, so that the participants would see the ideas building upon themselves. And on the last day of open book materials, I was already eager for them to embark on a Lean journey of continuous improvement, building upon the open book foundations being laid. (For the uninitiated, Lean is essentially the removal of waste within work processes, creating labor that is safer, faster, more productive and more efficient.) And by the end of the week, I was eagerly anticipating everyone’s return home, where they might discover application of the elements taught. But I didn’t even need to wait.
Just one day into the material on organizational Lean methodology, the waiting was over. As the day came to a close, as participants departed for recharging themselves and the Program facilitators gathered up their materials, Jesus stepped forward.
Jesus is a member of GARBO Cooperative, the host location for the Program. GARBO is frequently where we gather for workshops because they have facilities for long stays and accommodations for meals and meeting space. Jesus is therefore a frequent face at gatherings, whether as a full participant or as a curious passer-by. On this occasion, Jesus had joined us as a workshop member. He is a diminutive presence, standing perhaps a hair over five feet in height and a slender build to contribute to a boyish look belying his years. His initial shyness is vintage Nicaraguan, but it quickly dissipates in the face of a driving curiosity and friendliness. His classmates tease him by saying that visitors to GARBO always wish to take him back home, such is his charisma and boyish demeanor.
Jesus came forward to ask a series of simple Lean questions: why, he wondered, are the presenters using such a small table for their work? The table surface is much too small for the projector and materials, and the presenters have to store their copies and references in other places, either on the floor or on an adjacent table. Why not use a larger table surface, maybe with some shelving beneath the top, that would allow for easier access, less travel and a better flow of presentation? In fact, wouldn’t that idea be an example of putting Lean improvement to work?
We looked at each other in astonishment. Away from the earshot of the other participants, just a few hours into the material, at the close of a day in which we could only hope that some of the ideas of planned innovation might sink in, Jesus had come forward with an absolutely perfect application of Lean. Better still, he offered the observation to the very ones who had been encouraging the use of observation and application! His suggestions fit the definition of Lean improvements exquisitely. Maybe of greater importance, the lessons presented had clearly been received; we had no need to wait for the following days to know whether the concepts were viable to this audience.
I think our immediate joy caught Jesus off-balance. He did not anticipate that his simple observations would create such an excited reaction from his North American guests. We immediately asked him to share his insights and ideas with the entire group on the following day, as everyday examples of where to find waste and how to envision its elimination. The width of his smile at our recognition reflected his own dawning sense of achievement and acumen. Imagine the moment: the student steps forward in demonstration of his understanding by no less than coaching the teacher, and the teacher, having successfully planted a seed, witnesses its immediate germination. Plans were set in motion on the spot to create the table of Jesus’ design.
Yes, I love the anticipation of whatever’s next. Because there is good reason for great expectations from this journey we’re on. Even our moments of disappointment and disillusionment are filled with the possibilities of redemption. There is always excitement ahead, and I can hardly wait to see what is to come….
The hiatus here over the past couple of weeks has been the result of spending time in Nicaragua, participating in the second Certificate Program for development of rural producers and their counterparts in commercialization and credit. With so much information and context to consider, reflection and writing are crowded out in favor of absorption. Seven days of presentations, applications, ideas, questions, analysis, laughter, sharing and learning (from one another) was consuming.
I’ve had ample time to sort out my various reflections about the week spent among the rural participants, and I’m sure that some of those images will show up here in the weeks to come. But as I recall the week in its entirety, there is one observation that rises to the top of mind above the others. It is the matter of commitment.
Imagine for a moment what it would require of you to leave your home and your work for six full days (eight if you count travel to and from the conference site) to attend an educational workshop. To further complicate the matter, the work that you will leave behind will not be performed by anyone else. It is time-sensitive work, agriculture, which will consider no excuse if it is not done on time. It is your only livelihood.
The conference site itself is a long way from your home, a location to which you will likely travel for hours by crowded bus. Once at the site, you will be housed in dormitory-style, rustic quarters, but the outdoor toilets are really not more than twenty-five yards away. Access to sinks and showers is shared, so the earliest risers have the best chance at access.
These are the accommodations that will be yours for an entire week as you learn materials that are quite foreign to your experience; the facilitators will be requiring you to get out of your “comfort zone” every day. Most of the instructors do not speak your language, so you will be receiving their information through translation. Furthermore, the instructors are not even from your own country, so the cultural, social and educational norms they bring are not your own. They have brought books with them, which, though translated into your language, you may or may not be able to read, given your previous educational experiences. You know few of the other participants, perhaps just the one other person from your own business.
This, then, is the context of the Certificate Program held from September 5-10 at the foot of Peñas Blancas, home of the GARBO Cooperative. Yet despite the need to come to terms with inconveniences which might keep most of us away, forty-five producers, technicians and funders attended this second gathering of organizational innovation. Their mere presence was an astonishing testament to a desire to learn and implement new ideas in a world that, at times, is changing as quickly in rural Nicaragua as anywhere else in the world. No one was present because they had to be; they participated in the 9-hour days of presentations and exercises because they had committed themselves to learning something new, to improving upon what they have practiced for generations, to becoming someone different.
Perhaps a part of that commitment stemmed from the presence of several unusual “teachers.” My own face and voice has become familiar to at least some in the audience, but I was accompanied by two new faces, friends/colleagues from the U.S. who brought a unique and valuable bundle of organizational development experiences with them. Brian Kopas is a former teammate from Foldcraft Co., the leader in our efforts for implementing Lean Manufacturing there, a continuous-improvement-by-method. one of the main hallmarks of that company’s success in recent decades. Alex Moss is President of Praxis Consulting Group, one of the truly personal and high-values consulting firms in the U.S., and an outstanding teacher of open-book management cultures and practices.
Imagine for a moment what it would require of you to donate an entire week of your life to helping complete strangers grapple with the difficulties of organizational strengthening. You will need to seek time off from your “real work” to make the journey. To further complicate matters, you will receive no monetary compensation for your time and there will be no prospects of financial gain in the future from this endeavor. You will be required to travel for a day-and-half to reach the conference site. You will be addressing an audience which does not speak your language. Your accommodations will be modest but comfortable, as long as you don’t drink the water.
There is but one motivation to compel people like Brian and Alex, as well as the participants in the Program, and that is the notion of commitment. The attendees were as committed to learning as any group I have encountered in the U.S. in over 45 years. The commitment on the part of Brian and Alex, to bring their expertise to a part of the world where it is sorely needed, is a statement of faith in stewardship and sharing, an unselfish giving that flies in the face of today’s headlines of self-centeredness.
There was a lot more going on in the Certificate Program that week; I look forward to sharing it with you. But for me, the overriding truth of the week emerged from the strength of its commitments….
While we’re busy preparing for the second Certificate Program for rural cooperative members and managers, technicians, second-tier coop representatives and others, the focus is on methodologies. After all, we’ve spent portions of the past ten years describing organizational strengthening techniques used successfully in the U.S. in hopes that it might spark interest in the Nica countrysides. Now that rural producers have asked for greater detail about initiatives like open book management, Lean continuous improvement and organizational transparency, the workshop facilitators are eager to deliver such particulars.
As mentioned here previously, Winds of Peace will have the great good fortune to present Brian Kopas and Alex Moss, gentlemen whose organizational experiences in the fields of organizational Lean and open book management are extraordinary, and therefore of great potential application to this Nica workshop. They possess enormous knowledge and practical experiences, they have already provided materials for the introduction of their topics, they are counseling us in our respective workshop presentations and they will be huge resources for the inevitable questions and challenges that are encountered during the workshop. (Where people are intent upon learning, their questions and challenges are essential.)
But as I consider the wealth of knowledge that will be available to our audience in September, I am cognizant of another critical piece to the process of teaching and growing an audience: the vision.
Underlying all the operational processes and applications, there must be a vision, a mission, a purpose, a theme for the hard work that the attendees will encounter if they seek to bring an entirely new basket of ideas to their farms and coops. There must be a core principle that can re-direct and drive the improvements consistently, even when the newly-acquired skills might occasionally seem to become stale or seemingly inapplicable for some reason. In moments of frustration or temporary setback, that motivator can keep an organization together, to persevere and regain solid footing for the next advance in their collaborative strength-building.
Some organizations employ a vision, a stated “picture” of what the future might be like. Others prefer the idea of a mission, an intrinsically important undertaking whose outcome has the capability of delivering fundamental, positive changes. Still other groups elect to use the language of values, citing social or moral tenets that shape their beliefs and actions. But whatever words are used, the reality is the same: in order for human beings to change, to adapt, to move from their comfort zones, they universally crave a “cause,” a fundamental, personal reason to do that which is difficult to do.
In the case of the very successful Panamanian cooperative La Esperanza de los Campesinos (the Hope of the Peasants), that bedrock upon which their success has been built is in the historical presence of Fr. Hector Gallegos, whose spiritual and liberation theological teachings centered the coop members. (See “A Cooperative That Regulates Markets” by Rene Mendoza.) For a company like SRC Holdings in Springfield, Missouri, the birthplace of open book management, the bedrock was the liberation of employee thinking and intelligence through information sharing and involvement. For Winds of Peace Foundation, the bedrock has been the liberation of financial assets to address the dangerous gulf between the poor and the wealthy. Initiatives come and go, but the calling for the each of these organizations survives because of the depth of its existence. These organizations must do what they do. It is in their organizational DNA.
The coops represented in the Certificate Program will need to identify and embrace their own “calls to being. ” For some, the cause is already deeply engrained and sustaining the direction of the members. But for others, the identification might be less certain and less steadying. Maybe it has never been articulated in terms of a vision. Perhaps there are several purposes that have been embraced by the members, with no single mission emerging as the great unifier. In some cases, maybe the issue has never even come up; coop membership was simply a way to access funds for the next planting cycle. Whatever the case, every coop will require something to hold onto when the vagaries of weather and middlemen and coyotes of the marketplace interject their disruptions into plans for prosperity. What will the coops bedrock prove to be?
When Brian and Alex bring their skills to the Certificate Program, it will not be due to monetary gain (they receive none) or for notoriety (the program will take place in the deep countryside, away from media notice). They will present no political cause, no self-service nor personal advantage. They will spend more than an entire week out of their professional and personal lives because of deep-seated values that inform their senses of servant leadership and responsible stewardship. The lessons and know-how they teach may change between September and the next time they are invited to work with such an audience, but the reasons for accepting such an invitation will not. It is, after all, who they are.
Sometime during that first week of September, we’ll be interacting with some very eager Nicaraguans who know precisely who they are….