Curiosity is the secret sauce to lean


Okay… it’s taken me something like 20 years but I’ve finally connected some dots. Lean thinking works, lean thinking is hard. Here’s why.

One of the main themes of my doctoral research, in the previous century, was the “law of least mental effort.” I had distinguished four types of mental models:

  • Type I: stereotypes, clichés, habitual thoughts – wood burns
  •  Type II: general laws – dry woods are at risk of forest fires
  •  Type III: conditional laws – dry, hot winds will sustain a forest fire in a dry wood, but cool wet air less so.
  • Type IV: ad hoc explanations – specific causal explanations in context to explain one fact, event, etc.

In studying how people reason both in the lab and in real-life situations, I concluded that people reason… not very much. Most reasoning is both quick and shallow: imagery blended together more than actual “why?” logic.

Truth is that what we mostly feel is thinking is nothing more than a reaction of memory (not that that’s a simple process, but it’s quick and easy).

“Real” thinking requires, well, thinking, investigating, formulating, putting scenarios together, evaluating, visualizing, imaging, imagining: it’s difficult, consumes glucose, it’s tiring.

Real thinking doesn’t happen so often. It’s triggered by either curiosity, always there, or desperation. In our day to day lives, curiosity is the main driver to deeper thinking – an itch you want to scratch, a buzz you get when you figure something out.

The twist, of course, is that you remember what you think about most. That’s how memories are formed: if you think about it, and will need to think about it, you’ll remember it. And, conversely, the more you remember about something, the easier it is to think about it.

“Good thinking, good products” is the slogan that greets you everywhere when you visit Toyota in Japan: in the plant, in the memorial museum, on the gift pens.

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The name Toyota Production Systemis misleading because it’s easy to interpret it as it says on the label – a system of production. This means the sum of practices to produce effectively. In this view, for instance, continuous flow is more effective because it uses less resources than batch production. This is a hard point to prove since batching is more efficient in the use of scarce resources, such as presses, engineers and so on.

But what if lean is really a system to create the conditions for better thinking – not better producing. In this view, striving for continuous flows means that you need to solve a number of difficult problems, which can only done by thinking since remembering known solutions won’t do the trick – and hence deepen your understanding of the products and processes, which will lead you to be more performant at everything you do, including flowing the process more efficiently.

Creating the conditions for better thinking means understanding that thinking is hard and that the first thought that will come to mind is nothing more than a reaction of memory. To go beyond, we can:

1.     Visualize processes:vision is costless and immediate. Thinking about what we see is hard.  This happens in a foreign country when all signs and packaging are unfamiliar. Seeing itself is fast and effortless. Interpreting the simplest things is exhausting. By simplifying visually and concretely we take away the cognitive load of interpreting what is going on.

2.     Express problems as exercises:by framing problems as standard exercises, such as looking for 7 wastes, 5S, foot movement-hand movement-eye movement, etc. we make it easier to look into the problem with a starting point.

3.     Spur curiosity:asking “why?” continuously, challenging the reaction of memory, asking for clear causal explanations, looking for a next step are all good ways of stroking that curiosity bump – getting people curious is actually the key motivational tool of lean, and probably the hardest part.

4.     Rewarding and encouraging thinking:positive feedback on thinking for oneself rather than on giving the right answer is also critical because curiosity is human, but it’s also fragile and easy to smother. Recognizing people for their contributions, both for suggestions and initiatives is essential to keep the thinking going.

Now, I’ve written about all of this stuff for years, and there are no big surprises here. What I just came to realize is that “reaction of memory” and “thinking it through” are largely synonymous in business settings.

Business conversations encourage quick responses, smart reactions, easy points. What is easy to process cognitively feels true, solid, general. What is hard to process feels dicey, specific, uncertain. The smarter the people are, the better they are at the memory game: they remember more things better and faster. It doesn’t make them better thinkers.

Actual thinking requires a careful environment where people have the leisure to engage their thinking circuits – which is hard to get started and costly in mental fuel – and think – often badly, wrongly, getting emotional (it’s tiring), but thinking.

This explains why lean implementations fail without senseis: implementing the tools in themselves won’t get people to think – just to react. Thinking happens within relationships that both challenges first reactions and supports going out on a limb.

Lean is a system of education, not a system of production. Fast thinkers want to turn it into a system of production, creating “effective habits”, standardizing, etc., pursuing the dream that one can do the right thing habitually, without having to think. Slow thinkers know that finding a better way requires thinking hard – which is slow and messy. Great innovations are seldom born as such, the first versions of the idea are often laughable. Innovators succeed through sheer persistence and iteration until their baby looks like something others recognize as an innovation.

In the end, yes, there is a right way and a wrong way of practicing lean thinking. But it has nothing to do with programs, organization, management and so forth. It has to do with attitude and orientation: are the tools use to make people think? Or to stop them from thinking by giving rote steps responses?

As far as I know, lean thinking is the only on-the-job education system around. All other systems are production systems, not learning systems. But no education system can work without the key ingredient: curiosity. As long as leaders want answers to their problems and are not curious about the Why? The Who? The How? Just plainly curious – they will be disappointed by the bureaucratic systems they create for improvement, lean or otherwise. Curiosity is the secret ingredient to lean thinking – it is there all the time, in everyone, but it is fragile and needs care. Good observation and good discussion are necessary to “good thinking, good products.”

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