Lean Thinking is personal development

Published on
December 6, 2022
Michael Ballé
Michael Ballé
Michael Ballé is lean author, executive coach and co-founder of Institut Lean France
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By now, almost everyone is familiar with Daniel Kahneman's System 1 and System 2 models. System 1 is intuitive, quick, reactive, and often wrong (though effective in initial approaches). System 2 is reflective, rational, laborious, and reluctantly provides more rational answers. System 1 is "hot" cognition, system 2 is "cold" cognition. System 1 is fast thinking, system 2 is slow thinking, and so on. A theory becomes widespread when it touches the spirit of the times, and Daniel Kahneman's thinking about cognitive biases has done so in two essential ways.

First, it explains a major drawback of economic theory, namely that people are not utility optimists. Kahneman's approach shows that most of us have a built-in loss aversion: the threat of a loss outweighs the hope of gain for us. We don't have to throw out economic theory, we can adjust the numbers - they gave a psychologist the Nobel Prize in economics for that. Second, fast versus slow thinking is the perfect framework for a zeitgeist that creates consumption out of fast thinking. The main purpose of Internet apps is to bypass your slow thinking processes to get you to click that "buy" button now.

The book I hear cited most often in the app development world is Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. In it, all the tricks of the trade that use the idiosyncrasies of the mind to get users addicted are well explained - and indeed, some apps have succeeded excellently. Unfortunately, addiction is not attachment, and few addicts love the drug they are addicted to or love themselves for needing it. Indeed, they usually come to hate it even though they crave it - not a fantastic result. These various idiosyncrasies of the mind are all exploits of system 1 and ways to make system 2 work even harder (not difficult, since the brain is an energy guzzler and relies on system 1 unless it really can't do any more).

As a doctoral student, I repeated some of Kahneman's experiments with my own students. This was before his theory was so widely accepted (and even before his Nobel Prize), and I found his findings problematic. The students I tested gave a range of answers that slightly confirmed Kahneman's findings. But I also asked them to justify their choices, rightly or wrongly. I'm sure many students made the common mistakes in logic that Kahneman describes as a failure of system 1, such as choosing to avoid a probable loss rather than pursue a potential gain when in fact the odds were strictly equal. But more interestingly, when asked, they described the context they imagined around the stylized puzzle they had to solve. They did not proceed logically, but instead built an intuitive picture of what was presented to them, naturally filled in the gaps in the sketchy scenarios and came up with an answer. What was even more interesting was that these imaginary contexts varied greatly from student to student.

As Kahneman and his ideas came into prominence, another researcher, Gary Klein, examined why people were more likely to be right than wrong in situations of total uncertainty, confusion and often panic. He studied nurses on night shifts, firefighters in emergency situations and soldiers during special operations. Early on, Klein developed a Recognition-Primed Decision model to explain how people made decisions in real-life circumstances, as opposed to formalized problems for students. Klein focused on developing expertise, how to work on your mistakes and develop insights. To improve performance, he divides intention into a downward arrow, reducing errors, and an upward arrow, increasing insights. Reducing errors is absolutely necessary, but it also leads to rigidity and less marginal performance gains - people just get bored. Increasing insights is a necessary part of performance.

Focus on error reduction leads to larger and more dramatic errors

Klein discovered that the path of error reduction often leads to roadblocks, problems for which solutions no longer exist. In contrast, the path of insight is driven by curiosity, by exploring anomalies, by testing constraints. Insight is messy, discontinuous, sketchy, risky, but necessary to achieve breakthroughs, as Taiichi Ohno said at Lean : "logical escape." Organizations systematically inhibit insight with their bureaucratic focus on error reduction - leading to bigger and more dramatic errors.

The key to understanding both Kahnenam-like logical errors and Klein-like insight is to realize that the mind is not designed to be logical. It is intuitive by nature. System 2 is as intuitive as System 1, it just spends more energy testing these intuitions, building more intuitive "what if" scenarios and counterfactuals to bring out the logic. Logic is not a thinking tool, but a communication tool to share insights with others.

Where do insights come from? From your inner life, understood here in the sense of depth, richness and scope of your own images, models and consciousness. Inner life in the sense of being more attuned to details in real situations, being curious about deceptive anomalies, being sensitive to the reality of other people as a complete person, not just an organizational role, and to the dynamics of relationships. By developing your inner life, you enrich your thinking to be more in tune with the intelligence of situations and the intuition of events and outcomes.

Insight is born from the critical recognition of a situation and the considered intuition of how things will unfold. It is something we, as human beings, work on daily, even though we often don't recognize it. To become more insightful, we need, first, to be more comfortable with the variety, whimsy and richness of our mental images and, second, to be more deliberate, ruthless and fearless in expressing our intuitions. It is not surprising that the most insightful people you know are endlessly curious and read a lot, and at the same time are not afraid to propose outrageous hypotheses and then quickly correct them to bring them more in line with the facts.

Intuition is a muscle you build up

Intuition is a muscle you build, just like your memory muscle when practicing cooking, music, tai chi, or any physical activity - like going to the gemba. You exercise your intuition by engaging your brain with frames and confronting reality with them. Frameworks stretch you, they make you look elsewhere, consider and ponder things, create new images and thereby enrich your inner life, which in turn will spontaneously produce more insights.

Intuition is practice. Look at a random real-life situation through a familiar framework, let it lead you to the obvious (to you) spontaneous conclusion, and then work back to see if it makes sense: how far does your finding deviate from the norm? What counterfactual scenarios can we test this idea against? Testing the logic of reasoning is not the work of a cold and mechanical System 2; it is also intuitive and creative, applied only to rationalization rather than ideation.

The saddest thing I have seen in 30 years of study in the Lean world is the persistence of Lean coaches and consultants to apply Lean to people. They willfully ignore Toyota's basic advice "to develop parts, we develop people first." They organize better flow, better line balancing, shorter steps for operators, or better hand movements without ever involving people in their work and with the conscious intent of creating a more efficient labor camp. It always fails. It can't be done any other way.

The Toyota Production System is a collection of tricky problems:

  • How can we increase complete customer satisfaction?
  • How can we detect quality problems earlier and respond faster to understand how we made them?
  • How can we shorten the lead time to recognize all the inflexibility in the way we are set up?
  • How can we better align workloads to avoid muri, muda and resulting mura?
  • How can we engage people in standards learning and self-testing so that they can better master the work?
  • How can we engage teams in investigating deviations and seeking kaizen insights?
  • How can we better build trust between management and team members?

Each of these problems is rich, complex and mystifying. When you handle them in your mind like a tool in your hand, you intuitively see things differently, recognize patterns and situations. Occasionally you get the "aha" of a groundbreaking concept, and you understand something you didn't understand before. Then there is a before and an after.

Lean is about providing the framework so that people can develop their own intuition.

Lean is not about applying efficiency practices to people, it is about offering the framework, either piecemeal or as a complete system, so that they can develop their own intuition and come up with their insights. It is about developing everyone's inner life every day.

Our theories are important because they determine how we see problems and what solutions we seek. System 1 versus System 2 is a clear and easy way to understand how the brain works. Yes, the brain makes short work of problems through quick heuristics. Yes, these heuristics sometimes lead to an illogical conclusion. But not always or everywhere. In most cases, our heuristics lead us to the right interpretation and action. They certainly constrain us when we are engaged in sensemaking, but how often does that occur? And even then, our intuitive heuristics are as important in breaking out of the status quo as they are in maintaining it.

Intuition is our superpower. It can run wild, sure. It can get stuck in outdated models (so many people keep repeating what they learned in their twenties, including myself). It can lead you to the wrong conclusions. But it can also be trained and systematically developed by practicing frameworks, like the TPS, or as one practices kung fu. Practicing intuition is directly related to developing your inner life by adding thoughts, models, feelings, sensitivities to what you are already experiencing, which in turn creates a greater foundation for more intuitive leaps leading to insights.

Personal development is not about becoming better robots. It's not about making fewer mistakes. It's about engaging our own minds, looking at things differently through frameworks, working on problems until we discover the fallacies that hold back our thinking. Personal development is about caring for our inner life, personally and collectively. A culture is cultivated. Trees are cultivated, not parts to be placed in a mechanical system. Our ultimate goal of creating more collective intelligence requires that people learn personally. To do so, we must recognize and accept the human part of inner life and intuition in human thought. The TPS is a smart, robust framework for developing your ideas about work and organizations. Lean is personal development.

michael balle
Michael Ballé is Lean author, executive coach and co-founder of Institut Lean France

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