I've been a few days without posting here, therefore infringing the standards I gave to myself when I started this blog. That's what standards are for: to help you differentiate normal from abnormal. When a transgression happens for a short moment, you can consider the occurrence an exception, and try resuming them as usual. But if the occurrence happens often, a change in those standards is in order, as I think it's the case here. It's pointless to stick stubbornly to rules that were created under different circumstances; we have to evolve as they do.
As another departure from those standards, this post is for sure going to be way beyond 20 lines, as I want to dump here all the hansei I've been doing these days, and with that set the basis for the blogs' next stage.
The thing about the Shewhart Cycle, as with other cyclical structure I guess, is that you can start it anywhere. I don't want to appear as if I knew what I was doing more that I was, but on hindsight, it makes a lot of sense that I entitled my first post "Ready, shoot, aim": intuitively, I felt the first thing I had to do was getting a grip anywhere, putting in written the reflections I've accumulated on productivity and the artistic life, so I could later, as I'm doing here, follow the 'slime trail' back, to figure out what were the intentions and motivations beneath. So, in other words, what I did was entering the PDSA cycle in its 'Do' stage, with only a vague sense of direction, and here I'm moving to the Study and Adjust stages.
At first I had so many material accumulated in my brain, that the posts came to me very easily; a lot of ground to cover. However, as I moved ahead, there was more effort involved in writing. Not that I had run out of ideas, but I clearly felt that, increasingly, the writing activity was turning from pull to push. So here is when the need for study and adjustment comes in: in the light of the new circumstances, I could still "professionally" keep on churning out posts; writing comes to me easily and I always have more ideas that I can handle. But I start to wonder, wouldn't the effort be better employed elsewhere?
Writing my thoughts on Lean has provided me a huge relief already; it has also helped me arrange my ideas and make new discoveries about the way I work and how to improve it. "The best way to learn something is teaching it". But I make no mistake: the general interest for Lean is minimal. And in the field of music making, whose practitioners are perhaps more inclined to emotions than to reasoning I guess, the interest is zero. One day I Duckduckgoed "Lean musician" and there was no results at all, so I guess I ended up "writing the blog I would like to read". As a personal gratification, I'm happy I did it, but that doesn't change the fact that I'm like Tom Hanks speaking to the ball here.
No problem, I'm a nice guy and always love a good talk with myself, but there is a lot of music waiting to be done, experiments to be made, so I'm going to consider the bulk of the educational task done and move on. The main ideas on Lean in its connection with music, together with a few examples for possible applications, are available online now, in wait of that sunny day in which the interest for Lean increases, to the extent that it even reaches some musicians. In the meantime, I don't have the broadband to keep on discussing Lean in the way I've been doing it the last month. Practicing in itself is enough work alone.
Here is a paradox of me: I hate cars with passion, but I love Toyota. As Mike Rother says hilariously, just like those bracelets that say "What would Jesus do?" or "What Buddha do?", someone should sell a bracelet for Lean practitioners that said "What would Toyota do?". I know I would buy one. To that I have to add one more personal mental mantra I use: "Toyota 1950s". I repeat it to myself lots of times, as I'm trying to move ahead in my sessions, and disciplining myself to document things, and struggle to find patterns... and things fail in the most imaginative ways, and everything takes always longer than expected, and the final results don't show so much effort, and I fight self doubt daily, and nobody cares... but man how it inspires me to think of that tiny Japanese company of the past that faced every day its extinction, that manufactured barely a thousand clunky cars a month, but trying to do every day things a bit better. I know I'm in the rough first stages of this journey, my 1950s.
As part of its commitment to society, Toyota now tries to spread around the benefits of the Lean philosophy, and is far from secretive. But I'm sure that wasn't the case in their 50s, when they had enough with making the numbers month after month. That's my situation now, although I don't have "numbers to make" but in an internal way -- if I don't make music I feel dead inside.
So to sum up, what does this all mean for the blog... Mostly, that it will slow down in order to survive. Periodicity changes now to weekly, understood as "once within each week unit", i.e., not every seven days, but whenever along the week I feel like writing, and if it doesn't happen, using Sunday as the "broom day".
Regarding the content, I'm going to try to move the focus more from the process to the product. I feel a bit embarrassed to show my stuff in its current state, but I'll try to remind myself of that couple of thousand downloads I accumulate in different places in the web; behind the numbers there are human beings who pay me their attention, and I have an obligation towards them to overcome self doubt and keep on doing my thing and learning.
This doesn't mean that Lean is going to become a taboo matter in the blog now; I'll write about it for example when I have improvements that I'm proud of, or even some more theoretic concept; but all always according to the economy principle, the "if I feel like it", pull only and not push.
Maybe it would have been better to call this blog "A musician diary". Well, will see how the changes turn out and what comes next. I honestly have no idea.
I just heard the news of Nick Menza's passing away (I still can't believe I'm putting these words together).
I profoundly admired his style, and I want to have a note of remembrance for him here. It's appropriate for him to appear in something called Musician Diaries, as he was a musician who played drums, not just a drummer; that only is a very rare event, in my opinion.
His drumming filled the songs of ambiance and, for example, was a key element to the particular sound to 'Countdown to Extinction', the record in which I knew him; his memory, for me, will always be linked to that final earthquake in 'Ashes in your Mouth', where I learned there was another way of playing drums.
Short after that, of course, there was blast of 'Rust in Peace', perfect, precise, a piece of eternity.
After him, in my view, Megadeth has had correct drummers doing their thing, but nothing close to his talent and creativity (for example, how I missed his airy cymbals when I listened to the beginning of 'Fatal Illusion'!... He would have nailed that part).
I also loved his persona, with all the 'attitude' that is a brand for metal bands, but with somewhat of a tongue in cheek stance that balanced Mustaine's rage of those days (impossible to forget that 'Paranoid' cover with the rhythm going on at the end, Mustaine shouting "Nick, Nick!").
You only had to watch him playing to see how passionate he was about what he did. Cold technique does not impress me, I want to see passion. He played on a trip, it was incredible to see him when he stood up to hit the cymbals, his face like saying "wow, I made it here!"...
There's not much else I can say in these moments of sadness, this is just a small portrait by a fan. Thank you Nick for all the music and inspiration. God bless you.
"Hansei" is a Japanese word that can be loosely translated as "reflection". As an example, some Japanese parents can tell to a boy to "go to his room and do hansei" after he has been naughty.
The term has been adopted and made popular by the Lean management system. Companies do hansei. Engineers do hansei after finishing a product, or reaching (or being unable to reach) a certain goal: what went fine, what could be do better?
Perhaps, although who knows if I'm stepping into cliche land here, Eastern cultures are more prone to reflection and that's why Lean has been a natural fit for them. Hansei, in the end, can be assimilated to the Study-Adjust stages of the Shewhart cycle.
We can all use a little less of doing and a little more of reflecting about the done (I know I can). In fact, I have listened to several Lean practitioners already identify that as one of the main problems in our current world. There is no use in being wonderful at the Plan and Do stages, if we fail to study how all the planning turned out, what were the flaws and unexpected outcomes in the execution, and what will we do so that they don't reappear next time. In many social contexts, activity seems to be seen as universally a good thing. But without previous plan and further reflection, you can be actively engaged in creating a hell of a mess.
Someone even called this been centered only in Plan and Do the 'Pee pee doo doo mode'. So there goes the world.
The more places where we can apply the whole PDSA pattern, the more we learn of everything that we do, and the better we'll be at that doing that we all enjoy so much. There's a huge inertia of centuries of doing things wrong, and habits take a time to correct, but the evidence is that this way of working really works better. And if it looks slower it is only in appearance, because any gains that you obtain in the Pee Pee Doo Doo way of life evaporate quickly, and as you don't accumulate any knowledge, you are forced to reinvent the same wheel over and over and over. A good philosophy for slaves; remember what Einstein said about doing the same thing over and over?
Silly me, it has taken me almost 20 years to realize that the hinges of the Metal Zone pedal are screws that can be removed.
Well, in my defense I'll argue that actually, that fact wasn't very important until a few years ago. The pedal started its life as a device mostly used in concerts, i.e. meant to be kicked, so there was no need to remove the structure.
But as my focus of possibilities has turned more to the field of recording, pressing that huge bulky thing every time I wanted to turn distortion or on off was an absurd and dirty overkill (you can see the spring a bit in the right side picture - really resistant, lots of toil for a hand to handle).
This is a classic case of the waste called Movement: motion (or effort in this case) that does not add value. If you can switch distortion on and off by pressing a little nifty button, any other strength used in excess of that is waste, energy that has a cost but does not go into the quality of the final product.
The location of the pedal is also strategical: standing vertical on the table, so that all the controls are visible, and, although you can't see it in the picture, close to the sound card, so all the knobs are together in one place and easy to reach, all of which reduces motion too.
As I sorted the other day though my materials folder, for the first time in a long time, with real curiosity and fascination, a division that I was thinking about for a while finally clicked, a general but very handy rule of thumb that helps you classify the jungle.
I have this folder called "motifs"; --kinda vague and badly use of the word, but the term 'speaks' to me and that's what matters--. It's the place where I put conceptual ideas for songs, stuff that is in the abstract form rather than actual recording snippets or written word. For example, let's say, I listen to a song with mandolin and synthesizers in a movie and I think "hey, I'd like to compose something with that vibe". That's just an idea for when I'm a mandolin+synthesizer mood, all I need is a reminder. Or matters that I want to expand as lyrics.
So here's my aha moment: the composing stage of music creation can happen in plenty of ways, but in my case all those ways fall into two main big fat categories. Either there's pull (the melody that comes in the shower and tells you "write me! write me!"), or there's push (the day that you wake up and say to yourself "hey, I feel like composing a new song today").
The motifs, then, would be push - you can review them when you feel you're in "the mood", like reading through a menu of nice foods you've selected for yourself-. And most of the rest would go in the pull category (the riff pulled itself out of you, and when you play it again under the right conditions it will keep on developing, like in a game). Of course, speaking of "pure pull" would paint too nice a picture; in most cases, usually, there is always some "push" moments involved in finishing anything; those moments where you tell yourself "I just have to finish this now, I know it's the time", and you get down to it. in other cases, once the pull is exhausted, all you can do is wait, let it cool down, wait for the next pull "wave" to happen. Some songs are quick to "manifest" and others can travel with you for years.
I don't know yet how this division will translate into actual processes, but it's a great step towards the clarity I'm always looking for: getting to understand better what I do, getting to see it in a different way.
The other day I started a project that is very well suit for the using of 'frozen' materials, in fact that is one of things that most attracted me of it, so happily I ventured, for the first time in a long time, into the folder that contains all my snippets, riffs, jam recordings and whatnot, and which, congruently with my current Lean efforts, is now called "materials inventory". To be more precise, for "materials" I understand any amorphous stuff that hasn't reach the demo state yet.
For a long time, I've only been in that folder to drop stuff. It contains, for example, things transferred from two generations of cellphones. Traditionally I've done the transfer only when the memory is running out, so there is a big batch each time.
There are also, as it is foreseeable in a musician, plenty of other recordings made in the computer, via the internal mic or a sound card, guitar, keyboards, harmonica, kazoos, a capellas... There's also fragments of lyrics (or themes to be expanded into lyrics), in all the file formats you could imagine and then some.
I guess some people have problems to compose. I have the opposite problem: it's not strange for me to get up from bed in a rush looking for a pen and a recorder, as some melody has visited me in that intermediate state between sleep and awaken. It isn't strange, either, for me to stop after some minutes of jamming and enable a recording because something popped up and I want to capture it; in fact, once I get on a roll, I can sometimes figure out the 'seeds' of 3 or 4 songs in a single session.
A lovely abundance, but it was also becoming problematic because it's easier to create stuff than to make a decision about what you do next about it, or even how do you classify it. However, in this visit to my archives it seems things have started to get sorted out, a bit at least...
My hard drive died a few months ago and I got to change it just before it happened, with incredible luck and perfect timing. However, I lost some stuff in the process, and here I've found that some of my riffs are gone or exist only in the sad ghost of files that turn out to be empty. In particular, one that I was counting on for my project. So sad...
Something like this had happened to me before, with my former cellphone: the SD card died and I lost everything from one day to the next.
Inventory is always a big cause of problems, both in the real world (the unfinished products occupying real estate and gathering dust), and the virtual one. Use it or lose it.
I'm happy to declare that I've practiced the following standard list structure to a point that it has become second nature in me. I use it for music and non-music related stuff:
Line 1) NAME OF THE PROCESS
Line 2) INPUT: [What we have at the beginning]
Lines 3 to x) [ All kind of strange crap to make things happen]
Last line) OUTPUT: [What we have at the end]
I intend to discuss what goes between the Input and the Output in other posts. But taking in consideration only this high level definition, we get a world of possibilities already: as I'm running any of these processes, I often find that the beginning definitions were imprecise; every time I run the list, I learn to define the starting and result a little better, or it turns out that it made more sense to cut the 'chunk of activity' at different points... This makes the content of those lines (process name, input, and output) as movable as everything that goes within.
At some point, one of these babies becomes too big and then usually it is time to divide its parts into smaller, atomic units (I've found that keeping the lists short is a great recipe against resistance to modifying). The growing size of these lists is the sound of quality and precision increasing, and stupid drudgery that nobody cares about getting out of the way. It means more hours actually played, which is more sound made, which means more music for the world, and more enjoyment and personal expression for the happy camper who makes it :)
When you take the waste out of your processes, you obtain flow. If you want a crash course on flow, I haven't ever found a better example than this improvement they made in a clinic to have the next patient prepared (the relevant example starts at 4:19, but I recommend the whole video for everyone with a heart in their chest; this is the way human beings are meant to work together, the way I see it.)
The critical point where a lot of waste is created, is in the process between one ill person leaving the doctor's and the next one coming in. But it's a narrow factor, upon which we can exert control. Let's have him ready, by the door. The rest of the people in the waiting room can go at their pace, no big deal. Simple, isn't it? Does your doctor do it? I can tell mine doesn't.
The mechanics under this simple example can be applied to any area in our lives. For example, for any item that you have to buy periodically, have the one you're using and one more waiting (that "next patient chair"). When you start to use that second one, that's the signal for you to replenish buying one more. You'll never run out of stuff.
In creative work, a way of translating this is leaving your stuff so that it is ready to go next time: do the preps and setups after the task, not before. Be kind to your future self so he can "come in" quickly.
When I was getting started in the habit of flossing, I remember there was a very ugly first period. My gums bled, and, while I was at it, I sometimes noticed a disgusting scent of halitosis in my mouth, something that hadn't ever happened to me before.
If I didn't know better, perhaps I would have thought it was stupid going on with that practice, which, on top everything, was gruesome and took me forever. That flossing thing must be for sure harmful; I felt much healthier before I started doing it!
Obviously, it was not that I was healthier, but that before the filth was hidden. A Lean transformation is a bit like that. In the first moments can be overwhelming; problems start to emerge everywhere. But it's like that old adagio, "the first step to resolving a problem is acknowledging you have it". You are free to hide your organizational problems under the mat, but you cannot escape to the consequences of doing that. At some point, they may come and bite you. Of course, if you want, you can ignore it forever. Survival is not mandatory.
With all its layers of complexity and challenges, there is a kind of waste that manufacturing and services don't have to deal with, but the artist does: personal resistance.
When you work in a car manufacturing company, the final goal is having a car, and there is no second guessing about that. If you'd tell to your boss "I'm unsure if we should build a car", he'd probably suggest you politely to start looking for another job.
However, in the uncertain world of art, where you work with materials come out you don't know from where, intuitions, strange urges and glimpses, and things that can sometimes be true and false at the same time, self doubt and internal resistances come with the territory. In fact, in some cases maybe they are necessary to get the project right. Sometimes you just know that a song is not there yet, or that its moment is not right, and all you can do about it is wait. Neil Young spoke of that process as 'a window that opens'. Like I said before, in this field we are dealing with forces that we only know partially.
The Lean tools come handy to face this kind of waste too; first and most obviously, you want the tools to be ready to go when the light turns green. But also, by systematizing your process, you identify and corral the real enemy: it used to be mingled with "laziness", "procedural boredom", "lack of time"... Now you've taken care of those elements, and what is left, now you know for sure, is the resistance: self doubt, fear of failure or success... the whole parade of ancient monsters. They are big and scary, but now are in the open, and that is the first step towards their defeat.