Consultant Chris Rowe explores the ideas raised in The Chimp Paradox (2012), by Dr. Steve Peters, that human beings are often constrained by their inner instinctive thought processes and not by reasoned logic. In this article he’ll explores how this can relate to the beginning steps of a lean transformation.

The publication of The Chimp Paradox by psychologist Dr. Steve Peters has been the subject of widespread attention. His model of the human mind has been credited with Liverpool Football Club’s return to greatness, and as Olympic medals for Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton. The latter suggesting he was “the most important person in [her] career”.

The question then is what does Peters’ model have to offer lean? The psychological barriers faced by elite athletes seeking to improve their performance are similar in their nature to those faced by individuals who are introduced to lean; Peters’ model provides an accessible framework to understand these obstacles, and provides guidance on how to effectively overcome them. This article will introduce the key elements of his model and some simple techniques that can be used in the organisational context.

Dr. Peters’ model: a summary

The model is based on established psychology; it describes the mind as three interacting elements:

 The human: Is based on the frontal lobe, the area of the brain that deals with analytic, logical thinking, and works with facts. Peters encourages people to associate themselves with this part of the brain; it could be argued that this is the most important part of the brain for lean thinking.

 The chimp: Is based on the limbic system. It works independently and is responsible for feelings, impressions and gut feel. This part of the brain does not need permission from the human (frontal lobe) to function – it is its own master. Other characteristics of the chimp are impulsiveness, the need for safety, a dislike for change unless it’s considered positive. The chimp also has a significant influence over motivation as it has primary control over emotion.

 The computer: this is spread throughout the brain, it’s described as the storage area for programmed habitual thoughts and behaviours; both the human (frontal lobe) and the chimp (limbic system) have access to it. This element of the mind holds useful programmes known as autopilots, and faulty programmes known as gremlins and goblins. Gremlins and goblins are significant elements of the model as they lead to the misinterpretation of situations by both the chimp and the human.

The important point Peters makes is the inner, instinctive chimp often interferes with the human and needs to be managed. From a lean perspective, managing the chimp is important so that the human can work with lean, and develop the lean mindset.

The remainder of the article will discuss how the model can be used as a framework to understand the psychological barriers people may face when they are introduced to the lean concept, and what practical measures can be taken to help people overcome those barriers.

Gremlins: obstacles to lean adoption

The gremlin of prior experience

The limbic system (chimp) is concerned with protecting the individual and does so by interpreting information from the computer in order to make snap-judgments. One of the obstacles to lean adoption may be a persons’ prior experiences of lean, and the associated snap-judgment it leads to.

If, for example, an individual has experienced the introduction of lean into an organisation, and that introduction resulted in redundancies and increased workload, the chimp is likely to predict that the current situation will lead to a similar outcome. This mental shortcut of applying history to the present is often useful, but it this case, it may lead to incorrect assumptions about the intentions of a genuine lean approach, and lead to a psychological barrier to cooperation.

In practical terms, the time and effort for individuals to adopt a lean mindset along with its associated tools and techniques will differ from person-to-person. This depends on the snap-judgment they have made, and how negative their prior experience has been.


Removing the gremlin: communication supported by action

Any snap-judgment made by an individual is unlikely to be overcome quickly, and will require significant contradictory evidence to allow the person to move-on and allow the human to take over from the chimp.

One technique to overcome an individual’s negative first-impressions is to communicate honestly, openly and consistently with them. It’s then vital the words are supported by the associated actions. Their chimp will actively search out anything that can be interpreted as dangerous, and due to analytical bias is more likely to identify evidence that supports its negative view of the situation than evidence to the contrary. This understanding suggest early steps in the introduction of lean should be carefully planned, communicated and managed to avoid any opportunity for misinterpretation.


A case study: poor chimp management

Recently a distribution company introduced lean six sigma (LSS). The approach taken was to introduce a consultant who was there to understand what everyone was doing, and who was, according to some employees, earning thousands of pounds per day. This approach had three significant consequences:

1) The people in the organisation interpreted the situation in a negative way and were unlikely to place the adoption of lean in the safe category required for their humans to interact with it.

2) The experience of LSS those people had will influence the interpretation of future interactions with it.

3) The time between the introduction of LSS and the delivery of any of its associated benefits had been lengthened. It will take an unknown amount of time to undo the first impressions of employees.

The apparent lack of detailed communication about the purpose of the consultant, and what they we’re there to do, immediately opened the door for the misinterpretation of the situation; a zoo had been created. From the perspective of developing lean thinkers, this approach could not have been handled much worse. The barriers to adoption were up -and the humans had little chance to respond.


A better way: exercise the chimps

One of the techniques for managing chimps is to exercise them, in other words let the chimps have time to voice their concerns. This has its risks, but if facilitated well, it allows visibility of the issues people have adopting the lean mindset. One example of where this is particularly useful is in early meetings.

Using the example of the distribution company, a simple step would have been to have meetings with employees where the purpose of the consultant had been explained. A key element of the meeting would be allowing people the time to let their concerns out into the open. As explained later in the article, the meeting could also be used to help people establish a vision of what lean will mean for them – an important step in their acceptance of the lean concept. As Peters explains, the chimps will eventually tire and go back into their cage and allow the humans to come to the fore. But they cannot be ignored.

This example emphasises the need to balance the management of time, and the need to manage people. It is worth remembering the objective of a meeting is rarely the agenda, it’s moving towards a lean organisation, and in most situations the chimp needs to be managed before the human can take control.


Removing the gremlins: help people to obtain a positive personal vision

As mentioned, one approach to move past any negative impressions of lean is to help people develop a positive vision of the environment it will create for them to work in. If people are to develop as lean thinkers, their chimp needs to understand and accept the positives it can derive from it. The development of a personal vision has a number of effects:

  1. It will increase motivation to learn. Motivation is something that is heavily influenced by the chimp, and is required for people to fully immerse themselves in the lean approach.
  2. It will help overcome any negative impressions by providing an alternate outcome to the one stored in the computer.

According to Peters, there are a number of practical things that can help to facilitate people obtaining a vision:

  1. Allow people the time to think about lean and understand the benefits of it.
  2. Emphasise that the lean approach will allow them more control over how the work they do gets done; it is essential this is then allowed to happen.
  3. Allow people to make their own plans – hand over responsibility for lean to them. Allowing people to create and contribute to the plan often settles the chimp and allows the human to be involved.

All of these suggestions are on the understanding that motivation is often based on the idea of what’s in it for me. If something suggests more control for the individual, more autonomy and more opportunity, then it will be interpreted as a good thing. It’s useful to note the chimp’s motivation is very different to human motivation: typically based on survival and improving status.


Making people aware of their chimps

Experience suggests the one thing that’s most helpful in managing chimps is by introducing people to the model; it has broad appeal, and is readily accepted by most.

The strength of the chimp model is its resonance with diverse groups who can apply it to theirs own and others behaviour. Providing people with a light-hearted way to express the unavoidable emotions of the working environment is invaluable. Chimps are normal, and should be expected; but they need to be managed and taken care of if lean is to flourish.