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Kevin Meyer


Back to the Beginning With Ohno, Suzuki, and Yoda

Five biases that prevent rational decisions

Published: Tuesday, August 16, 2016 - 13:41

As I was researching the remarkable similarities between lean and Zen for my book, The Simple Leader  (Gemba Academy, 2016) one of the most interesting—and meaningful—was the concept of the beginner’s mind.

Taiichi Ohno said, “Observe… without preconceptions and with a blank mind.”

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki similarly said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

One of the core concepts of Zen is shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.” This is a perspective that is free of preconceived ideas and opinions, and is open to new thought. We know how some lean concepts can be counterintuitive. Embracing shoshin requires “unlearning” what you thought you already knew—in effect, creating a beginner’s mind.

Yoda, back in one of the original (and, ahem, good) Star Wars movies recognized this, and told Luke Skywalker “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

As we become older and supposedly wiser, creating a beginner’s mind can become increasingly difficult. It becomes even more so when an entire team or organization needs to unlearn and develop a beginner’s perspective. So how do you revert to a beginner’s mind?

Confirmation bias

Begin by focusing on questions, not answers. When observing a process, especially one you’ve seen many times, try to avoid jumping ahead to conclusions. Take one step (or, as Ohno would emphasize, one question) at a time. Similarly, be aware that what seems like common sense may not be. Avoid using the word “should” as it implies a predetermined or expected outcome. Be careful with experience. What you already know should be an input, not a perspective. Be comfortable with saying “I don’t know”—it shows a desire to learn and is a component of humility.

Being biased is a result of not having a beginner’s mind. The most common and well-known bias is confirmation bias. This is our desire to believe what we want to believe, to the extent that we consciously or subconsciously distort or interpret information to fit our preconceptions. We can also seek out sources of information that align with our biases, while ignoring nonconfirming data.

You can see an example of confirmation bias in the politics of the United States—and apparently in the United Kingdom as well. It’s the reason the two major parties in the United States are moving away from the center and more toward the extremes. Even though the number of information sources has exploded during the last couple decades, people on the right of the spectrum consume news geared toward them, because they feel it is correct. In other words, it fits their biases. The same happens on the left. This has occurred to such an extent that heroes of each party—Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, for example—probably wouldn’t be welcome in their respective parties today.

Loss aversion

A second form of bias is loss aversion. Researchers such as psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have found that we’re twice as likely to try to avoid a loss than go after a gain. In effect, we are risk-averse, which may be great for our survival as a species, but it hinders us as we try to create organizational change and improvement.

Conformity bias

A third form of bias is conformity bias, also known as groupthink (e.g., “When in Rome…”). By nature, most of us don’t like to stand out in a crowd and will be willing to agree with a group, even if we know the information is incorrect.

Survivorship bias

A fourth type is survivorship bias, where we focus on the tiny fraction of people who are successful, ignoring the far greater numbers who have failed. An example of this is our fascination with and attraction to get-rich-quick gurus. We also look at highly successful people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and think we could be like them. We then try to model ourselves after them. We find it easy to ignore, or not even understand, that every path is unique, and what works for one person may not for another, for a multitude of reasons.

First impression bias

Finally—and this one is very common in the business world—there’s anchoring, or first impression bias. This form of bias occurs because we subconsciously give the first piece of information we receive on a topic more relevance and weight than follow-up information. This is why public relations companies find it important to get their story out first, and why it’s so difficult to change minds after the fact—even if the subsequent information is more accurate.

Once we know that we’re susceptible to these biases, what can we do? The most important thing to do is to be mindful and present. Observe and ask validating questions. Why do you think this way? What are the arguments against your opinion? Review the forms of bias and honestly try to determine if they might be in play.

Taking steps to neutralize your biases will help you make smarter, more rational decisions. Observe like a beginner. Find your inner Yoda… or Suzuki or Ohno.

First published July 12, 2016, on Kevin Meyer’s blog.


About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.


Always be a learner

Reminds me of some of the ideas of Rookie Smarts, Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.


Kahneman and Tversky

I've been reading 'Thinking Fast and Slow' by Kahneman and Tversky, and it's a fascinating read!