This article by John Bicheno is based on a number of current topics related to lean leaderships, and aims to generate discussion.

Lean: it’s all in the mind. Or should I say brain?

We can thank the brain scientists, and their reporters, for new insights into what it takes to be lean.

First, Kata. A word popularised amongst the lean community by Mike Rother. Kata, of course, is a sequence of movements carried out by karate-ka. The point is that the sequence becomes automatic. The more you do something, the more likely you are to do it again, explains Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. Neural pathways become embedded in the brain. They also decay with non-use – that is why even multi-Dan black belts do their katas. The Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemann proposes the ‘system one’ and ‘system two’ concept of the brain. System one governs subconscious decision making like motorway driving thus freeing the brain to do deliberate system two judgments and considerations. System one seeks out established pathways, like a kata sequence. System one is fast but sometimes wrong. System two is deliberate but lazy, preferring to defer to system one.

David Mann explains that creating a lean culture is like extinguishing a camp fire. Old habits need to be extinguished not just by letting the fire go out, but by going back and kicking over the embers several times. It’s repetition. So we learn that lean change will not succeed by one-off activities such as attending a short-course, doing one A3, or participating in a single kaizen event.

Speaking at the recent LERC conference, George Koenigsaecker, a CEO of several leading lean organisations, showed the results of an interesting longitudinal survey. It depicts managerial attitudes against participation in a number of kaizen events. Attitudes only begin to change significantly after participation in three or four events, and then dip slightly before continuing to climb again (the dip has also been noted by Scholtes, saying that real lean learning begins only after some time when one acquires ‘sufficient understanding to see that “we don’t know much”’.)

Repetition is something that Training Within Industry (TWI) – in many ways the foundation of the Toyota system – has long embodied. Job Instruction (JI), for instance, includes numerous repetition – ‘do it again stressing key points’, ‘do it again stating reasons for key points’, ‘continue until you know that they know’, ‘check frequently’, and ‘if the worker hasn’t learned the instructor hasn’t taught’.

Repetition or habits can be learned such that they become embedded. Many drivers feel uncomfortable if they are not wearing a seat belt. Pilots do pre-flight checklists and would not dream of taking off without going through the list. This is not a reflection of a driver’s or pilot’s competence. It’s a failsafe. Atul Gawande in his book on checklists explains how, at some hospitals, surgeons overcame the notion that checklists were an implicit criticism of their competence resulting in dramatic falls in errors and patient survival rates. Nurses are now thanked if they point out to a surgeon that a step has been missed. Once there was fear of hierarchy. Gawande describes two types of checklist – the ‘read do’ and the ‘do confirm’. Each has its place. At Lake Region, Ireland, a recent recipient of the Shingo Prize, the TWI-type job breakdown sheets are used regularly as do-confirm checklists. Again, dramatic improvements have taken place.

But just auditing for prevention is not good enough. Lake Region is always seeking better ways. Back to Mike Rother and kata. Mike criticises the PDCA ‘wedge’, saying that maintenance of standards is not good enough; the target should be perfection. In a similar vein, Starbucks teaches employees the LATTE sequence. This is the automatic, or system one-type reaction whenever there is a complaint or incident. Listen, Acknowledge, Take action, Thank, Explain. Like a surgeon or pilot the sequence is rehearsed. But there is follow up, as in the Explain step. This is like ‘proper’ PDSA, or the version used by famed service authority John Goodman known as DIRFT. And, of course, it is management’s responsibility to ensure progress.

‘Proper’ PDSA involves systematic trial and error, with a hypothesis. Perhaps a better sequence is Predict, then Do, Study against the prediction, Adjust the prediction or confirm it. DIRFT is do it right the first time to minimise problems, but then responding effectively to any problems that arise, feeding the information to the right people so that they can make improvements, and finally move to higher levels of service.

So repetition by itself is not good enough. It is repetition or kata together with attitude. Not just your own attitude but also the attitudes of managers, mentors and colleagues. This leads to the second element – confirmation bias. We all have such biases – we give scrupulous, critical attention to ideas or people that we don’t believe in, but take on the smallest scrap of evidence when it conforms with our prejudices. Lean change authority Frank Devine calls these ‘filters’. Hence, you tend to get what you believe. If you think an operator will be a poor problem solver, he will be. And repetition reinforces these ideas.

Frank Devine has developed employeeowned ‘behavioural standards’ with several lean organisations in the UK and Ireland, with one of the aims being to overcome the problem of values being interpreted differently and thus losing credibility in the eyes of employees. These standards are specifically developed within an organisation. As an example of a behavioral standard, one (of five) is “When there are problems, ask ‘What happened?’, ‘Why did it happen?’, ‘How do we prevent it?’ and not ‘Who did it?’”

I have been fortunate to work with V.S. Mahesh in some service organisations using the ‘Pygmalion’ effect. This is really a form of confirmation bias or, to quote Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re absolutely right.” Combined with kata or repetition, some amazing (to me and to the managers concerned) transformations have occurred. ‘Tough cases’ have been transformed, and Mahesh has managerial commendations to show for it from airlines, hotels, consultants, and car repair – to name a few.

Similarly, renowned Stanford psychology professor Carol Dwek discusses what she terms the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The growth mindset is ‘based on the belief that your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your efforts’ and ‘everyone can grow through application and experience’. The fixed mindset is the reverse – you believe that your intelligence and capabilities are pretty well fixed at birth. If you fail it is because it is in the genes; nothing you can do about it. Dwek tells of Michael Jordan who was a mediocre player who was dropped by the varsity team but who, through mindset and huge practice, became one of the greats. Others too have joined in with this theme: Malcolm Gladwell talks about the ‘10,000 hour rule for mastery’, citing numerous examples and concluding that practice and determination are the keys.

Think about that one: 10,000 hours to master lean? Koenigsaecker would probably concur.

But, again, repetition and attitude are not enough. This leads to the third element – coaching, guidance or mentoring. Here we are on more familiar territory – kaizen, leader standard work, and small wins. Once again, not very effective without repetition, and not effective without the right attitude.

Once again there is brain research. In One small step can change your life: the kaizen way Robert Maurer discusses how frequent small steps are much less threatening and more effective than occasional big steps because of the evolution and structure of the brain. Bigger changes trigger a fear response leading to access to the cortex being restricted. But access to the cortex is required to establish and reinforce the pathways mentioned under kata.

This is not to say that there is no place for big change – like Kaikaku. Both frequent small wins and occasional breakthroughs are essential for lean progress. But we now realise what a big challenge to the brain big change presents. For efficiency sake, the brain will seek out familiar pathways as a reaction to big change or crisis but these may be ‘system one’ reactions and not always best considered. You don’t have time for a collective huddle when a sabre-tooth tiger is charging. A neural pathway is not established, as with kata except where there is a dramatic event such as 9/11 or a real burning platform. This may help explain why infrequent bigger lean initiatives often fail to embed. Again, if a crisis can be anticipated such as in airline losing an engine or a complaint at Starbucks, a checklist or rehearsed procedure can be put in place.

One can cite David Shenk’s The genius in all of us, Barbara Frederickson’s Positivity or Matthew Syed’s Bounce. To me, they all have a similar message – positive mentored repetition. How did Mozart become great? Through talent, yes, but also through a famous father piano teacher who gave endless positive feedback through thousands of hours. Why is Brazil dominant in football? Because kids play only 5 a side football well into their teens – thereby kicking a ball much more frequently than European kids – but also are actively coached. And why is good A3 so effective in lean? Because of positive mentoring, where the Toyota mentor is judged on the success of the mentee. And what has carried Lake Region into the Shingo Prize? Probably a lot to do with Noel Hennessy’s enthusiasm of daily positive persistence for endless small wins.

Moreover, visualisation is also required to facilitate the communication that is required to facilitate both kata and attitude, into leader standard work.

Now we can bring these together into the Lean Change Trilogy. See figure 1.

Finally as a conclusion, recent research by Amabile and Kramer at Harvard Business School shows how enhancing inner work life, through perceptions, emotions, and intrinsic motivation, hugely boosts creative performance. Nourishing is the name of the game, as in Mahesh’s Thresholds of Motivation: the corporation as the nursery for human growth or Toyota South Africa’s former director of operations George Davidson’s Creating thinking people. Essentially numerous small wins through positive feedback – or, as I see it, wearing my lean spectacles, through attitude and behavioral standards, kata repetition, and small wins kaizen.

Further reading

David Mann, Creating a Lean Culture, Second Edition, CRC Press, 2010

Mike Rother, Toyota Kata, McGraw Hill, 2010

Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code, Arrow, 2009

Carol Dwek, Mindset, Robinson, 2006

Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto, Profile, 2011

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, The Progress Principle, Harvard, 2012