How Your Brain Gets In The Way: Why Lean Works and When It Doesn't

Jan. 17, 2014
Our brain is not into reality.

Everyone recognizes the need to change. Why, then, is it so difficult? In the lean world early Japanese masters were known in frustration to call managers “concrete heads” when they discovered they could not see the waste that was right in front of their face. Why are there so many concrete heads? Just why don't they get it?

Nobody starts their day intending to make bad decisions, yet many of our best intentioned efforts don’t quite work out. Hard as we try to foster creativity and innovation, it just doesn’t always happen. The important insights lie in how our brains operate. The fact is the world is changing faster than our brain is evolving. As we learn more, it is becoming clearer that there are certain operating features that no longer serve us well.

Yet, much of our beliefs about management, leadership, motivation and innovation are based in these outdated operating features. Nowhere is this more evident than in our attempts to guide and shepherd change—in ourselves and with our colleagues.

For instance, how can two people look at the same set of facts and have two completely different interpretations? Why do we stick to our guns in the face of data that suggests otherwise?

Here is one reason: Our brain is not into reality. Rather, it wants to make a plausible explanation of the data it takes in so that it can act now in the face of danger. This is essential, life-preserving, if we need to avoid the saber-toothed tiger lurking at the edge of the forest. But acting on plausibility may not lead to the best decision in complex, conflicted circumstances.

The truth is we cannot trust our brain for an accurate assessment of the current condition. We must look elsewhere to challenge this plausible explanation, either within ourselves or from others. Gaining agreement on a current state value stream map, for example, requires us to agree on just what is actually happening, not what we think is happening. Even more challenging is getting agreement to a desired future state map, which requires us to acknowledge the needs of others who touch the process, provide a foundation to support the negotiation, arbitration and mediation necessary to agree on the next-best vision for improvement in a given set of circumstances.

Those who evolved Lean and continue to do so understood and understand the essential function of the “respect for people” principle as the driving force behind the best results with Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA), the scientific method. What we know now about our brain explains why.

Lean evolved through keen observations by many, many people, noting how individuals can work and how they work together and the power that comes when this actually happens. The method of PDCA actually gives us something to practice—a structured process for changing the way we think. Through millions of PDCA’s loops, they revealed a system that not only reflects how our brain can work, but contains countermeasures for when our brain doesn’t work so well.

The set of routines that impede our openness to new ideas were learned, and fortunately research on brain plasticity shows that we can deliberately change our brain. But like any complex skill it takes deliberate practice. The good news is that the more we practice changing our brain to become more open and to continually learn through PDCA, the easier it becomes and the pleasure centers go wild.


Liker Leadership Institute (LLI) offers an innovative way to learn the secrets of lean leadership through an online education model that is itself lean, and extends that lean education far beyond the course materials. Learn more about LLI's green belt and yellow belt courses in “The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership” and “Principles of Lean Thinking” at the IndustryWeek Store.

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