The Human Condition:

The Zen of the Machine – May 4, 2014

Compound steam engine

A recent Facebook posting by a former colleague of mine at Life Technologies reminded me about the approach to industrial controls called Six Sigma and the various programs associated with it. Many of them were developed by the Japanese and bear names in that language. I never trained in Six Sigma techniques, but I worked alongside a black belt in that practice who was trying to improve our manufacturing processes for reagents and other biotech consumables. I also wrote articles about the practice and its components for our employee website, so that everyone would know about our efforts to improve products and efficiency.1

Six Sigma tries to prevent variations in manufacturing or other processes through a five-step mental process: 1. Defining the basic manufacturing steps, 2. Measuring the output of each step, 3. Analyzing data from these measurements, 4. Designing the best approach to each new step or redesigning existing steps to improve or optimize their action in the overall process, and 5. Verifying or controlling the implementation of the steps to achieve the desired results. These steps may adjusted or added as either corrective or preventive actions. An associated process from the Japanese is called “kaizen” and means continuous improvement: dedicating oneself and one’s team to the philosophy that any process can be analyzed and tightened many times over, continuously increasing its accuracy and efficiency. A further related philosophy is “lean manufacturing,” which considers any expenditure of effort that does not directly contribute to the satisfaction of the end customer as wasted effort.

In thinking about these approaches and philosophies again, I suddenly realized that Six Sigma and its components are all about making people think and work precisely and efficiently. It is rather like making them see the world as an engineer would, but without first having to teach them the complete course in engineering. Such a rigorous education starts with basic high-school physics, chemistry, and calculus and proceeds from there through college and graduate-level courses in the various mechanical, civil, electrical, and other disciplines.

My dad was a mechanical engineer,2 and although I never trained in any of his disciplines, I absorbed a lot of the engineering viewpoint from him as I grew up. Engineers see almost everything as a system: push here, pull there, action and reaction, forces in balance or out of balance, processes full of frictions and flows. When you have that vision, you naturally want more smoothness, more precision, less waste, less friction. Elegance is simplicity, least effort, greatest harmony. You are in tune with the Zen of the Machine.

While Zen masters might meditate on the harmonies of nature or the disruptive paradoxes of a koan, an engineer contemplates the balance of forces, or their imbalance, in a process or piece of machinery. He—and sometimes, although less rarely these days, she—can become mesmerized by the thrust of pistons, the reciprocating rise and fall of connecting rods, and the turning of a crankshaft to produce horsepower. In an open-work machine, like a marine triple-condensing steam engine, the engineer not only sees the flying masses of metal but listens to the hiss of the valves and the song of the bearings. He is in tune with its intention, senses its function, and feels any misstep or hesitation as a cry of discord.3 I myself have fallen into a trance while watching a Harris printing press at work: the precision with which the ink rollers, the inked plate, and the printing surface interact to spread ink on paper, coordinated with the lift and flow of each separate sheet from the feed stack to the output. It’s a marvel of speed, simplicity, and precision.

In his novel Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein introduced the Martian word grok, meaning “to drink,” as a term for a person becoming absorbed with, or fully understanding and participating in, a concept or a process. To grok is to identify oneself with the thing so closely that you become the thing, see the world from the thing’s viewpoint, and can predict the reactions and consequences of the thing as if they would be your own. Engineers grok a machine.

To say that the human body is a vast and intricate chemical machine is just a metaphor. But in the way that an engineer can grok a steam engine, a doctor can grok the body and its functions. Through a trained imagination and intuition based on experience, the doctor puts him- or herself inside the body and its processes, feels them out, analyzes the results of tests from biomarkers like temperature, pulse, and blood pressure; chemical composition of blood, urine, and other fluids; reactions of the skin to pressure and the iris of the eye to light; and other direct observations in order to understand and diagnose possible diseases and bodily conditions. It might one day be possible to create an expert system, an artificial intelligence, that will collect these various readings and test results, refer them to a matrix of symptoms and diseases, and arrive at a statistically likely diagnosis. But I doubt that any machine-mind will be able to sympathetically enter the flow of the body’s functions through a trained imagination and conceive a feeling, an intuition, for what might be going wrong. A machine that could do this would, for all practical purposes, be operating at a human level.

In the same way, it would be only a metaphor to describe as a machine any biological process, such as the energy flows among predators and prey, symbionts and commensals in a rain forest environment, or the interplay of genetic mutations and protein variations in an evolutionary descent, or any physical process, like the equilibrium of pressure and temperature at a stellar core, or the interplay of gravity and inertia at the event horizon of a black hole. But a biologist or physicist can grok these interactions and forces, delving mentally into their complexity, following the flow in the same way an explorer follows a river through the geological deformations of hills and valleys, or a hunter follows a game trail through the forest, participating in the experience as if assuming the identity of the land mass or the game animal.

The human expert—engineer, doctor, biologist, physicist, explorer, hunter—participates in the process at an intuitive level. Knowing techniques like Six Sigma and equations like F=ma or E=mc2 are a shortcut to understanding. But the true knowledge, won from the inside, requires years of study, practice, and experience. One drinks, immerses oneself, and becomes part of the flow.

Whenever a person enters that meditation, he or she becomes attuned with the Zen of the Machine.

1. “Six sigmas” is a reference in statistics to a degree of accuracy or consistency, in which a product run is defect-free or a process produces accurate results 99.999% of the time. Technically, the term represents six standard deviations between the process mean and the nearest specification limit—and if I could explain that to you in English, I’d be an engineer. The initial practice of Six Sigma techniques originated at Motorola in the 1960s, was picked up by Jack Welch at General Electric, and has since become a standard in many industries to reduce process variation, increase process efficiency, and improve overall product quality. People take formal training in these techniques by proposing and completing improvement projects and are awarded with metaphorical green and black belts, much like a martial art.

2. See Son of a Mechanical Engineer from March 31, 2013.

3. In the novel The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna, the ship’s engineer is able to diagnose a badly installed crankshaft bearing by its raw sound among all the harmonious clatters, squeals, and whistles of the engine room.