The benefits of staying perplexed


“I’m completely confused,” concluded a participant at a recent workshop on Lean thinking – as if this was a bad thing. Staying perplexed as long as we can is, surprisingly, a good thing.

In the workshop, participants were asked to build a paper toy in a Lean simulation. The process was a mess, to start with of course, and they delivered to their customer 90% defectives.

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When asked which kaizen (one step change) to do, they answered almost unanimously: improve the process by getting workstations closer – the process was far too inefficient, with too much transport from one station to the other, obvious bottlenecks and so on.

Why? To make more bad parts quicker?

In real Lean thinking we will of course start by fixing quality problems by training operators – but that is not the “lean” participants had in mind. They thought “lean = improve flow.” And went for it. With a great deal of confidence.

Research consistently shows how overconfident we are on making choices where we, really, have no clue.

  • First, we unconsciously reduce any problem to the part we feel we can solve
  • Second, we’re overconfident in our best guess
  • Third, we’re anchored by it and start collecting all facts that seem to confirm it, no matter how tenuously
  • Fourth, we commit to it socially and will fight for being right against all evidence from others (felt as wrong-headed arguments – can’t they see?)

After all, we want to succeed in our own terms far more that we want to succeed full stop.

Lean thinking is about succeeding. which is why thinking lean mean to think upside-down:

  1. We start that by assuming that our understanding is 90% correct
  2. We focus on the 10% that is strange, or unexpected: no surprise, no information
  3. To figure out the misconceptions in our own thinking
  4. That risk to invalidate the most logical, obvious plans with large thinking errors

This can be fun, but you’ve got to get over the very uncomfortable “confused” barrier. Sure, you know what you know, but you also have to remind yourself that you don’t know. Facts have a half-life. Half of what we know now for sure will turn out to be wrong, but we don’t know which half.

Perplexed doesn’t mean incapable to choose or move forward (optimism is a useful trait, it propels us forward). Perplexed means that you make quick, short guesses, and look carefully at the way things turn out.

The value of PDCA thinking is in the A: Quick Plan, Do something, Check what happens, and then Act: draw the conclusions from the experiment and think deeper about it, try the next step.

A great benefit of the Lean learning system is that it keeps you confused. By reformulating the challenges, playing the JIT and Jidoka pillars against each other, worrying about better heijunka, better standard work, better kaizen, and thinking more deeply about basic stability, you get to challenge your first conclusion again and again.

And discover new sources of improvement you’ve simply missed although they’ve been right in front of your nose all along.

Being perplexed doesn’t mean you don’t know what you know, or you can’t act decisively. It means remaining aware that the feeling of confidence you currently feel is your evolutionary brain making you ready to move forward – a mental illusion, no more. Lean thinking helps in staying perplexed by the number of time you get wrong-footed in situations that seem obvious at the outset, but turn out to be more complex that initially thought. And that’s a good thing.

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