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Tonianne DeMaria


The Lean Brain Series

Five ways our brain can thwart lean and how to mitigate them

Published: Thursday, September 28, 2017 - 12:02

While heading to a session at the most recent Lean Transformation Summit, I found myself confronted with signage that posed the following open-ended question: “All problem solvers must....”

Given how the work we do at Modus Cooperandi focuses largely on the nexus between lean for knowledge work, behavioral economics, neuroscience, and the teachings of W. Edwards Deming, one response in particular resonated:

“Understand how their behaviors are contributing to the problem.”

Knowledge workers’ “machinery”—i.e., their brains—can be capricious, rendering thought processes less than reliable, and actions less than rational.

While lean offers us a set of principles and practices to help us create value for our customers, for our organizations, and for ourselves, it’s our brains that seem to pose the greatest challenge to its successful implementation.

But it’s not our fault, you see. Our brains hate us.

OK, so maybe that’s a bit harsh. They do nevertheless tend to act in their own self-interest to conserve cognitive energy—for instance, opting for rapidity over reason—and often sabotage our best intentions with their behavior-impacting shortcuts. Which is precisely what Jim Benson and I have encountered in the hundreds of workshops we’ve offered where we ask participants, “What is your biggest impediment to implementing lean?”

The universal response? Myself.

To understand why this is, we need to look no further than the System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK). With SoPK, Deming explains how people and processes are all part of a complex web of interrelated systems. Among those is our cognitive system.

In contrast to that which is found on the factory floor, knowledge workers’ “machinery”—their brains—can be capricious, rendering thought processes less than reliable, and actions less than rational.

Deming taught that having an understanding of psychology is important. For lean thinkers who engage in knowledge work, even a cursory understanding of how the brain can contribute to behaviors that impede lean’s five key principles is crucial to identifying where lean efforts might become sabotaged.

My latest series of articles, The Lean Brain, includes:
• Value Is a Conversation
• Visualization Begets Alignment
• Flow: You Can’t Step in the Same River Twice
• Push Is Blind. Pull Is Informed. See Beyond the Silo.
• Improvement Is Not an Option

I’m ready to get this valuable conversation started.

The Lean Brain begins now

Lean says: Define customer value.

Your brain says: I’ve seen this countless times before—I know what my customer needs better than they do.

What’s at play here: Expertise bias. Overconfidence effect. Ivory tower syndrome. Ego.

There’s an old story about a man standing along a riverbank. He doesn’t see a bridge, but he does see someone on the opposite bank fishing.

Hey!” he shouts across the water. “How do I get to the other side of the river?”

The other man yells back, “You’re already on the other side of the river!”

“Acknowledging there might be an alternative or even multiple perspectives, and acknowledging that ‘their there’ might deviate from our own, requires mental effort.”

Perspective. More than our own exists. Unfortunately, we’re not wired to immediately see things beyond our own context, and so from an anthropological standpoint, having a self-centered worldview makes perfect sense. Man’s survival did not depend on knowing what fellow hunter-gatherers thought, felt, or needed. Biologically speaking, seeing things from our own side of the proverbial river is cognitively expedient: It’s quick, convenient, and let’s face it, practical.

Acknowledging there might be an alternative or even multiple perspectives, and acknowledging that “their there” might deviate from our own, requires mental effort. When we fall into the trap of assuming only one truth, of applying a singular mental model, we miss inherent complexities and nuances, and obliterate not only the possibility of finding better alternatives, but also guarantee that we will at some point fall short of our customers’ expectations.

How to mitigate: Your gut instinct, your experience, your myriad belts and certifications and mastery aside, you do not know what your customers want. They are the arbiters of value, not you. Replace assumptions with humility. Ask open-ended questions. Endeavor to gain an unbiased understanding of—and deeper insight into—what your client explicitly wants and why.

Next up in The Lean Brain series: Visualization Begets Alignment.

First published on the ModusCooperandi blog.


About The Author

Tonianne DeMaria’s picture

Tonianne DeMaria

Tonianne DeMaria is partner and principal consultant at Modus Cooperandi, and co-founder of Modus Institute and Kaizen Camp. She is co-author of the Shingo Research and Publication Award-winning book, Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, and the upcoming Why Kanban Works and Kidzban. DeMaria is passionate about the roles collaboration, value-creation, and happiness play in “the future of work,” and appreciative of the ways in which lean thinking can facilitate these ends. She helps clients create cultures where effectiveness is valued over productivity; learning and continuous improvement is ongoing; innovation can take hold; and where healthier, fulfilling, and more integrated lives can result.


Excellent article

Great information and perspective.  This article got me thinking beyond the 'standard' lean approach.

Looking forward to the next one.