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Mike Micklewright

Six Sigma

Dyslexics Wanted, Part Three

Problem-solving, creativity, and mistake-proofing

Published: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 - 06:00

In part one of this series I described what dyslexia is and how I linked “dyslexia” with “lean.” In part two, I suggested an approach to training in the work place called “universal design for learning” (UDL), which takes into account those who learn differently from others. In this part, I will discuss how lean techniques allow people with dyslexia (and other populations for whom written or verbal instructions might be difficult) to function and contribute within the organization. 

Those who have dyslexia have an ability to look at things much differently than “normal” people. It also just makes sense. Their entire lives, they’ve had to deal with discovering ways to make it, or to pass, in a world that is not well suited to them.

Lean and the Japanese word “kaizen” are about “continuous improvement,” which represents the little improvements made every single day by everybody. Lean is about exposing problems… not hiding them. This is where continuous improvement and creativity are required. Creativity is about solving problems by looking at them from a different viewpoint, a different and unique angle. Those who have dyslexia have done this their entire lives.

“People with dyslexia discover new associations between ideas or concepts that no one really thought about before.”
—Dr. Gordon Sherman


This is true in humor. Examples (from my stand-up comedy routine):

“I got my mother interested in taking a class on mistake-proofing… right after I was born.”

“What do new graduates call mistake–proofing these days?  My bad-proofing.”


This is also true in the business of teaching creativity. Years ago, I became a certified instructor of Dr. Edward De Bono’s courses in “Six Thinking Hats” and “Lateral Thinking.” The green hat of the six thinking hats was the hat of creativity, or the hat of how to do “lateral thinking.” The tools taught within lateral thinking allow the student to think differently than the norm and come up with entirely new ideas and concepts. In a sense, they basically teach linear thinkers to think like as a dyslexic does. Those who have dyslexia have so much that they could teach us about creative thinking. Talk about untapped resources.

Those with dyslexia can often “see” the big picture better than the rest of us. From John Chambers, famous dyslexic and, oh yeah, CEO of Cisco, “Dyslexia forces you to look at things in totality and not just as a single chess move. I play out the whole scenario in my mind and then work through it…. All of my life, I’ve built organizations with a broad perspective in mind.”

Since one of lean’s most important principles is “continuous improvement,” those who have dyslexia should excel in a truly lean environment if they are encouraged to do so and if a business system does not continue to keep them feeling unappreciated.

One very beneficial and under-utilized technique that is encouraged in the lean world is mistake-proofing. What’s the best way to improve a process? Find ways to make mistakes impossible or nearly impossible to make. Those with dyslexia have made “mistakes” when measured against unfair standards their entire lives, in school, at home, and in the workplace, and so they are used to finding ways to mistake-proof what they do. They are naturals and we can all learn from them. Lean tools and techniques, without exception, encourage mistake-proofing.

Unfortunately, at nonlean organizations the only time “mistake-proofing” is used is after there has been a safety or other expensive mistake. It is reactionary. There are so many opportunities to mistake-proof processes, if we only tried to be more proactive. I think I would want individuals with dyslexia on my team when designing products or processes to be more robust to mistakes.

Relying on others/communication

These days, so many people speak of the necessity to network. To one who has dyslexia, networking and relying on teammates is a necessity for survival, because in the written world, all the required information needed to survive is basically inaccessible. A dyslexic knows she must rely on others to provide the information or data required to make decisions. In order to do this, she realizes that the only way to obtain the required information is to talk to others and to ask others for their assistance.

Lean encourages open communication and relying on others within the organization to help out. Those who have dyslexia are naturals at this and would thrive in a lean world.

The unfortunate reality of the situation

“I want people to wish they were dyslexic. There are many positive attributes that can’t be taught that people are generally not aware of. We always write about how we’re losing human capital—dyslexics are not able to achieve their potential because they’ve had to go around the system.”
—Sally Shaywitz


There is a stigma about being dyslexic because it is still largely misunderstood, especially within organizations. People feel ashamed. The quotes above are from leaders of top organizations and many of them come from Robert Langston’s excellent book, The Power of Dyslexic Thinking (Bridgeway Books, 2009). They are or were at the top of their organizations and had nothing to lose about proclaiming their dyslexia. But what about the people in middle management?

“… if you’re a corporate VP in the mid-ranks, there’s a very large disincentive to saying you’re dyslexic, because you’re still being evaluated.”
—Ben Foss, researcher


So people continue to hide their dyslexia for fear of being found. They fear the potential consequences related to an annual review and the associated stigma of being viewed as a “dummy.”

Again, a full 20 percent of your work force could have dyslexia. Unless you know this and are actively considering the implications, two problems could occur: not creating an environment in which those with dyslexia can flourish, and not exploiting their talents and using them to the best of their ability and to the full benefit of the organization. What is your organization doing about this?

With regard to the first problem, we need to understand that even though some people find a way to become very successful in spite of their dyslexia, there is a large population that still feels dumb, stupid, and idiotic. Though they may be talented and creative, they don’t feel or see themselves that way. This lack of self-esteem can lead to a lack of self-confidence and a reluctance to actively participate in continuous improvement teams or volunteer any improvement ideas. What a shame and waste of talent.

In fact, author Robert Langston states that if one was to draw a success diagram with success on the bottom or x-axis, and low success levels being on the left side and high success levels being on the right side, the shape of the curve would be that of an inverted bell curve. In other words, there are many unsuccessful and unmotivated people with dyslexia. I believe this is the result of a broken school system that ensures their lack of success (an almost self-fulfilling prophecy), by essentially telling them they are failures. There are studies that suggest that a significantly higher percentage than normal (up to 20 percent of those with dyslexia), reside in our overcrowded jails. If you are told your whole life you are a failure, maybe you are more likely to become one.

On the other end of the curve, there are many successful people with dyslexia who, because of their natural creativity, and typically a very strong support system at home, overcame the obstacles and used their talents to grow a business. There are some studies that show the percentage of small business owners who have dyslexia is significantly greater than the typical population.

What to do?

In this three-part article series, I have focused on one part of our diverse population, those with dyslexia, because it’s a personal interest of mine. But there are other portions of our population for which a lot of what I have discussed also applies. The purpose of an organization is to maximize the strengths of its employees to the betterment of the company’s products and environment. This won’t happen if employees are treated as one-size-fits-all, with all employees wedged into the same size and same shape hole regardless of their talents or methods of learning and communicating. Lean has a lot to teach us about creating an environment that embraces employees with a variety of skill sets and learning abilities.

If what you have read in this series has caused you to think a bit more about your co-workers then you might be asking yourself what the next step is.

1. Understand the principles, culture, and practices behind lean and embrace them and expand beyond them, including training within industry (TWI), gemba, and visual controls/management. Lean did not purposely build an environment for those with dyslexia or other learning differences. Lean just built a culture of respect of all individuals.

2. Understand the concepts behind “universal design” and build them into your internal documentation and training systems, much like many aspects of lean have been.

3. Evaluate the value of your performance appraisal system and determine if it is unfair and detrimental to a portion of the population. Consider abolishing it.

4. Review your diversity program. Does it address identification of those with dyslexia? Should it? What are the pros and cons? How else can you take advantage of the great talents of that population?

5. Explore creativity courses that encourage “normal” people to think like those with dyslexia.

6. Learn more about dyslexia.


About The Author

Mike Micklewright’s picture

Mike Micklewright

Mike Micklewright has been teaching and facilitating quality and lean principles worldwide for more than 25 years. He specializes in creating lean and continuous improvement cultures, and has implemented continuous improvement systems and facilitated kaizen/Six Sigma events in hundreds of organizations in the aerospace, automotive, entertainment, manufacturing, food, healthcare, and warehousing industries. Micklewright is the U.S. director and senior consultant for Kaizen Institute. He has an engineering degree from the University of Illinois, and he is ASQ-certified as a Six Sigma Black Belt, quality auditor, quality engineer, manager of quality/operational excellence, and supply chain analyst.

Micklewright hosts a video training series by Kaizen Institute on integrating lean and quality management systems in order to reduce waste.


Life verses Reality

Thanks for bringing to light something a lot of people misunderstand. Many people with this condition are considered by others as being lazy or stupid. Speaking for myself and others I know who suffer from Dyslexia; "We are hard working professional people who may not see the world as others see it, but we do see it. Sometimes that seeing of things differently is what is needed to help solve the problems others can't see because they want it to be so cut and dry. People who "suffer" from Dyslexia do not suffer from it we embrace it. I thank the Lord everyday he made just a little different than the majority of people."

transparent vs opaque

“dyslexia” with “lean” is a great practice article. As English is my 2nd language, I suffer dyslexia and just smile when other people laugh or anger for some sentences. I agree with you that creative give me more fun and let me feel better.
I mostly think different from other. For my big idea “Transparent Filter Bag for Vacuum Cleaner”, the advantages of a clear bag is significant and better than current opaque filter bag for vacuum cleaner if you or wife vacuum at home, but most experts just don’t believe it. Is it common sense for us “transparent is better than opaque”? transparent make us comfortable and feel everything is on hand.
We need good speaker to promote, and also need dyslexia create and discover “mistake”, so that we can improve together as a great team