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Learning from Indigenous People for Continuous Improvement: Mentoring

In today’s corporate world, mentoring, if it happens at all, is more likely to be short term and purpose driven.

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Mentoring is, however, fundamental to quality and continuous improvement. Is there a need to take a more holistic view of the mentoring relationship? Are traditional quality and lean methodologies enough or should we be looking to Indigenous practices?

Deming certainly seems to point to a more holistic view of mentoring. Taken as a whole, his 14 points set the framework for a long-term mentoring relationship based on a shared understanding and mutual respect.

Lean is very much about creating a respectful learning environment where continuous improvement is not only possible, but an integral part of doing business. Mentoring is key to developing this learning environment and to lean thinking. Each level of the organization mentors the next level. At the top, the Lean Sensei helps the manager develop lean thinking and problem-solving capacity by turning everything into a learning moment. This relationship is meant to be longer-term, but purpose driven. It places an obligation on both parties to listen and learn from each other.

“Be humble, Be grateful, Be open
Realize that you are on a lifelong journey of learning
Every interaction with a person is a chance to learn.”

Mike Orzen, Lean Enterprise Institute Faculty

The Anishinaabe have a very similar approach to mentorship. Their version of the mentorship arrangement is expected to be life-long, adapting to the various phases of a person’s life as outlined in the medicine wheel and according to the four directions teachings. For example, for a traditional marriage ceremony, the prospective husband and wife must find four couple sponsors willing to mentor them throughout their marriage.  The choice of each sponsor is based on a recognized ability to guide the couple in a particular aspect of their lives such as focus, honesty, kindness, wisdom, etc. This mentorship is taken seriously. The sponsors agree to be honest and kind in sharing their wisdom with the couple and the couple agrees to be open to this sharing throughout their lives. Maintaining a positive and enriching relationship demands considerable self-control and management for both the sponsors and the married couple. The Anishinaabe people recognize that this is not an easy task, so the mentoring decision is considered carefully on all sides.

Photos by Virginia Stanley

Within this tradition and those of the Blackfoot and Cree Nations, teaching/mentoring involves the whole person, the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual and takes into account the past, present and future self. Successful mentoring is based on mutual respect and designed to enable each person to feel the message with the full attention of his or her whole being. Understandably, this takes a great deal of preparation, something that may be lacking in our modern approaches to mentoring.

In my next blog, with the help of my mentor, Dwight Powless, I will further explore how indigenous practices prepare for a successful mentoring relationship.

Photos by Virginia Stanley, Canterbury Arts Program, Canterbury High School, Ottawa.
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This article is Part 2 of the series: Learning from Indigenous Peoples for Continuous Improvement

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