This is the fifth in a series of blog posts that are based on some writing I did a long time ago and a lot of thinking I have done since. The basic premise is that the principles espoused by W. Edwards Deming to help manufacturers improve the quality of their products can be applied by individuals to improve the quality of their relationships. Previous posts in this series are linked at the end of this post.
Break Down Barriers
“Point 9: Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.”
–W. Edwards Deming
Deming adamantly believed that separations within a corporate organization are detrimental to innovation and responsiveness to customers. In his view, all barriers between departments and across organizational levels should be eliminated to allow open communication and to facilitate product improvement.
Similarly, shrinking or eliminating barriers in our own lives is a significant step toward improving our relationships. What barriers are there and how do they arise?
It seems to be a characteristic of human nature to pigeonhole things into categories, to analyze things into components. Examples run from the Linnaean classification of living things into Kingdoms, Phyla, Classes, Orders, Families, Genera and Species to the dissection of matter into molecules, atoms, nucleons and electrons, quarks, and beyond. This is a useful process in learning because from studying parts we can understand the whole more completely than if we studied the whole superficially.
This process of analysis becomes unconscious and we start analyzing ourselves into components: a mind, several body parts, and perhaps something nebulous called a spirit. Our family is separated into parents, sons and daughters. Our society has women and men, people of different ethnic groups, different socio-economic classes, different religions, and different generations. We identify our own classification and view the rest of “them” as separate.
This unconscious analysis encounters our immediate surroundings and we note our separateness from the apparently lifeless rocks and buildings around us. We analyze the globe into nations and we become separate from the individuals on the other side of that national border.
Simply noting differences is fine. But often we have an unstated assumption that what is different must be separate. We go around as humanoid-shaped, skin-wrapped bubbles of isolation. I contend that this isolation is an illusion.
Physically, there is constant influx of matter between “us” and “the outside” at the atomic and molecular level. Consider the evaporation of water from our skin. A water molecule secreted from a gland in the skin may spend some time sitting on the surface of the skin, and then is carried away by air currents. There is, however, no point in space where we can say, “At this point it left ‘skin’ and became ‘air’.” Hormones and other substances similarly cross the frontier of skin regularly, and we continuously exchange matter in the breathing process.
What I include in my concept of “me” need not stop at my skin. When I’m outside and feeling a gentle breeze, I can make a conscious shift in perception, and feel the breeze blow through me. In this situation, “I” become fluidly connected with the trees and birds that an instant before had seemed foreign and separate.
Based on personal experiences too numerous to mention, I have come to accept the concept of ki (Japanese) [or chi in Chinese]. I usually translate ki as life force; it is the energy that generates and sustains all life and all matter. Living with a focus on ki helps me break down barriers.
Here is a helpful story from Koichi Tohei, disciple of the founder of the martial art Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba:
“A man walks to the sea, bends down and cups some of the water in his hands. ‘This is my water, ‘ he insists. In a sense he is correct, of course. Temporarily it is his. Ultimately, however, the water belongs to the ocean. Whether he lets it slip through his hands there on the sand or it evaporates, condenses as part of a cloud and falls again as rain, it is to the ocean that ‘his’ water will return.
“So it is with our lives. We surround a small portion of the Ki of the Universe with our bodies and say, ‘This is me.’ The Ki that gives us life is part of the Ki of the universe in just as real a sense as the water held by our man on the beach belongs to the ocean.”
In his book, Becoming Animal, David Abram writes
“We can sense the world around us only because we are entirely a part of this world, because – by virtue of our own carnal density and dynamism – we are wholly embedded in the depths of the earthly sensuous. We can feel the tangible textures, sounds, and shapes of the biosphere because we are tangible, resonant, audible shapes in our own right. We are born of these very waters, this very air, this loamy soil, this sunlight. Nourished and sustained by the substance of the breathing earth, we are flesh of its flesh. We are neither pure spirits nor pure minds, but are sensitive and sentient bodies able to be seen, heard, tasted, and touched by the beings around us.”  [emphasis is Abram’s own]
Deming emphasized that barriers between departments within an organization should be minimized to improve product quality and customer loyalty.
Similarly, to improve the quality of our relationships, it is helpful to understand that barriers are illusory. When I become aware of a barrier I have created between myself and another, I ask myself if this barrier is helping me learn or is it isolating? Where it helps me learn, I can view it like barricades during road construction–a temporary aid for focusing on a trouble spot during the learning process. Where it isolates, I try to shift my perception and become aware instead of the life force that both generates our differences and is the unity behind them.
 Tohei, Koichi. Book of ki: co-ordinating mind and body in daily life. Japan Publications, 1976.
Abram, David. Becoming animal: an earthly cosmology. New York: Vintage Books, 2010. p.63
Previous posts in this series
Quality of Life – Introduction