Tools: Gumptionology 101

“‘Gumptionology 101 – An examination of affective, cognitive and psychomotor blocks in the perception of Quality relationships – 3 cr, VII, MWF.’ I’d like to see that in a college catalog somewhere.”
[Robert M. Pirsig, in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance‘]

In his own way, Robert Pirsig was one of the forerunners of the modern quality-movement, particularly TQM. It’s certainly true that his extraordinary book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, first published in 1974, opened up what was, for that time, a revolutionary new understanding of ‘Quality‘. Yet, as he himself insisted, his usage of the word was in no way new – yet its true meaning, and true value, had become forgotten during centuries of neglect. Elsewhere in the book, he revives another old word – ‘gumption’ – and shows its practical use in the technology – and business – of today:

I like the word ‘gumption’ because it’s so homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along. I like it also because it describes exactly what happens to someone who connects with Quality. He gets filled with gumption.

A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. … The gumption-filling process occurs when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one’s own stale opinions about it. But it’s nothing exotic. That’s why I like the word.

As the book’s title suggests, Pirsig’s main example is motorcycle maintenance, but exactly the same principles apply to the solution of business problems as well as technical ones:

If you’re going to repair a motorcycle, an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool. If you haven’t got that you might as well gather up all the other tools and put them away, because they won’t do you any good.

Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption.

Each individual task has its own detail, such as should be described in workshop manuals, or the procedures and work-instructions required by ISO-9000 and the like. However:

There’s another kind of detail that no shop manual goes into but that is common to all machines. This is the detail of the Quality relationship, the gumption relationship, between the machine and the mechanic, which is just as intricate as the machine itself. Throughout the process of fixing up the machine things always come up, low-quality things, from a dusted knuckle to an accidentally ruined ‘irreplaceable’ assembly. These drain off gumption, destroy enthusiasm and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business. I call these things ‘gumption traps’.

There are hundreds of different kinds of gumption traps, maybe thousands, maybe millions. I have no way of knowing how many I don’t know. I know it seems as though I’ve stumbled into every kind of gumption trap imaginable. What keeps me from thinking I’ve hit them all is that with every job I discover more. Motorocycle maintenance gets frustrating. Angering. Infuriating. That’s what makes it interesting.

And exactly the same is true for business, of course.

In traditional maintenance gumption is considered something you’re born with or have acquired as a result of good upbringing. It’s a fixed commodity. From the lack of information about how one acquires this gumption one might assume that a person without any gumption is a hopeless case.

In non-dualistic maintenance gumption isn’t a fixed commodity. It’s variable, a reservoir of good spirits that can be added to or subtracted from. Since it’s a result of the perception of Quality, a gumption trap, consequently, can be defined as anything which causes one to lose sight of Quality, and thus lose one’s enthusiasm for what one is doing.

In this, Pirsig’s concept of ‘gumption’ closely resembles an understanding of power not as a ‘fixed commodity’ to be fought over, but as something personal and variable – a kind of ‘power-from-within’ which can vary greatly dependent on both external and ‘inner’ conditions.

As far as I can see there are two main types of gumption traps. The first type is those in which you’re thrown off the Quality track by conditions that arise from external circumstances, and I call those ‘setbacks’. The second type is traps in which you’re thrown off the Quality track by conditions that are primarily within yourself. These I don’t have any generic name for – ‘hang-ups’, I suppose.

Most of the setbacks can be addressed through appropriate training and well-designed procedures; but the ‘hang-ups’ can be much more difficult, simply because they are personal:

As the course description of gumptionology indicated, this internal part of the field can be broken down into three main types of internal gumption traps: those that block affective understanding, called ‘value traps’; those that block cognitive understanding, called ‘truth traps’; and those that block psychomotor behavior, called ‘muscle traps’. The value traps are by far the largest and most dangerous group.

Of the value traps, the most widespread and pernicious is value rigidity. This is an inability to revalue what one sees because of commitment to previous values. In motorcycle maintenance, you must rediscover what you do as you go. Rigid values makes this impossible.

We don’t have to look far to see the same problem in business: history shows that it doesn’t take long for rigid values, fixed attitudes and incorrect assumptions to destroy even the largest of corporations…

The typical situation is that the motorcycle doesn’t work. [And then] you’re stuck … The facts are there but you don’t see them. You’re looking right at them, but they don’t yet have enough value. [In effect,] the facts do not exist until value has created them. If your values are rigid you can’t really learn new facts.

When [a new fact] comes along, it always has, at first, a low value. Then, depending on the value-looseness of the observer and the potential quality of the fact, its value increases, either slowly or rapidly, or the value wanes and the fact disappears.

Pirsig warns that it’s easy to get lost in such a mass of facts that it’s impossible to make any sense of them – a problem that’s becoming more, rather than less, acute for business as the data-gathering power of information technology increases. The way out is through a different understanding of quality:

The overwhelming majority of facts, the sights and sounds that are around us every second and the relationships among them and everything in our memory – these have no Quality, in fact have a negative quality. If they were all present at once our consciousness would be so jammed with meaningless data we couldn’t think or act. So we preselect on the basis of Quality, or, to put it [another] way, the track of Quality preselects what data we’re going to be conscious of, and it makes this selection in such a way as to best harmonize what we are with what we are becoming.

What you have to do, if you get caught in this gumption trap of value rigidity, is slow down – you’re going to have to slow down anyway whether you want to or not – but slow down deliberately and go over ground that you’ve been over before to see if the things you thought were important were really important and to … well … just stare at the machine for a while. Watch it the way you watch a line when fishing and before long, as sure as you live, you’ll get a little nibble, a little fact asking in a timid, humble way if you’re interested in it. That’s the way the world keeps on happening. Be interested in it.

At first try to understand this new fact not so much in terms of your big problem as for its own sake. That problem may not be as big as you think it is. And that fact may not be as small as you think it is. It may not be the fact you want but at least you should be very sure of that before you send the fact away. Often before you send it away you will discover it has friends who are right next to it and are watching to see what your response is. Among the friends may be the exact fact you are looking for.

After a while you may find that the nibbles you get are more interesting than your original purpose of fixing the machine. When that happens you’ve reached a kind of point of arrival. Then you’re no longer strictly a motorcycle mechanic, you’re also a motorcycle scientist, and you’ve completely conquered the gumption trap of value rigidity.

Although it’s a strange book in many ways, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance‘ is well worth reading for anyone concerned with quality-management, especially as Pirsig goes into a lot more detail – practical detail – about a wide range of other set-backs and ‘hang-ups’. The extracts above came from pp.305-312 of an early edition: page-numbers are likely to differ slightly in the current editions.

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