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Slowing Down to Speed Up

Borrowing From Neuroscience to Drive Kaizen Thinking

“If you are going to do TPS you must do it all the way. You also need to change the way you think. You need to change how you look at things.” – Taiichi Ohno

One of the most common issues lean coaches face when teaching structured problem-solving is keeping people from immediately jumping to countermeasures when addressing a problem. Touting the virtues of sticking to the process and mentioning that the countermeasure may be wrong is rarely an effective way to getting someone to forget what they already think is the answer and to take more time and effort only to arrive at the same conclusion. There are a number of reasons for countermeasure-jumping, and understanding the motivation behind the behavior can help people appreciate the importance of following the process.

There are many reasons people jump to countermeasures rather than following the process to solve problems. The need to be an expert (for personal or cultural reasons) and being stressed or overloaded are two common reasons.  A third reason, which is the focus of this blog, comes from the study of neuroscience and our internal programming regarding how we make decisions.

Fast vs Slow Thinking 

In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman presents the results of his research into decision-making. Kahneman presents two distinct processes in the brain that, although apparently designed to work together, often conflict with one another. The first, which he refers to as System 1, is the fast thinking process that runs on autopilot. The obvious purpose of the fast brain is to protect us from danger – i.e., we don’t have to take the time to think about getting out of the street when a car is coming – and to keep us from having to relearn simple tasks each time we perform them. The fast brain is guided by intuition and habits, and takes virtually no effort to use.

System 2 is the slow brain, and is used for issues that require deep-thinking logic and focus. It takes time and effort to use the slow brain, but it is the part of thinking that deals with complex issues and enables innovation and creativity to occur.

The issue with all this, however, is that that the more the fast brain is used, the more it tends to dominate the slow brain and could, in fact, shut it down in most situations.  When applied to the workplace, the fast brain always wants to jump to countermeasures immediately.

For a variety of reasons, many organizations tend to reward fast-brained people through promotions and bonuses because companies that want quick answers and immediate results do not value deep, careful thinking. Because of this, organizations that have not identified their few highly critical priorities will have cultures that lean toward fast thinking.

Thinking, Reflecting, and Learning

Kaizen requires slow thinking and reflecting in order to identify and challenge assumptions that are preventing effective and innovative countermeasures. This may be what Taiichi Ohno meant in the above quote when he wrote that TPS requires you to “change the way you think,” since lean requires much more engagement of the slow brain.

I believe that this is the reason kaizen is not natural for most people. Since most of us are overloaded in our professional and personal lives, we are dominated by our fast brains. As a result, we probably get more done by operating in this way – it’s the quality of our work that we have to question. Getting people to understand kaizen requires making them realize this and to learn how to access their slow brains when approaching a problem.

I spend a lot of time these days getting people to slow down when they’re addressing problems.  If it’s a small, one-time issue, I only try to get those involved to do a basic 5-why exercise to help them start to appreciate slower thinking without shutting them down completely. When dealing with the larger and more critical problems, however, I continually coach them to slow down and think about the steps in problem-solving before jumping to any conclusions.  It requires a lot more time and coaching to get a person or team to clearly understand a problem and think deeply about each step in the process. When people can start to understand the value of accessing their slow brains, the transformation (or “thinking differently” as Ohno stated) starts to occur.

When you think about it, Toyota’s 8-step problem-solving process is designed to encourage slow thinking. Clearly identifying the gap frames the process, and breaking it down requires looking at data and going to gemba to understand the issue from various perspectives before wasting time attempting to think about causes or countermeasures. Anyone who thinks an A3 can be completed in one sitting is being guided by their fast brain. And for people who do this, their fast brains will get a lot of exercise as they continue to address the same issues over and over again.

The Big Gains 

Slow thinking is what leads to the big gains that lean thinking drives.  Organizations that approach lean without changing the way people think will likely end up disappointed and abandon the process as not applicable to their business.

About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.


2 thoughts on “Slowing Down to Speed Up

  1. I have heard the critique of the A3 is being documentation for dicumentation’s sake. I’ve also sat in long “workshops” where the objective was literally to complete an A3. Try not to laugh but it is true.

    We live in a climate that rewards the people who shoot from the hip. There is a time and place for quick execution of the 80% solution but not in every single problem and certainly not when trying to deploy lean and change habits.

    I have had some luck in phrasing the A3 process as mythbusting to give it some counter-appeal to the hip-shooters.

    I’ve also had to remind folks that the A3 is just a guide but it can also serve as a current state summary of the problem. This seems to get folks more involved in the process because they know it will be useful in other ways(training and historical record)


    Posted by Kyle | November 15, 2017, 8:52 am
    • Kyle-Thanks for the comment. I agree with your comments in organizations that attempt to apply lean thinking over a traditional leadership system. Lean requires transformation – and if leaders aren’t ready to transform themselves and the systems for which they are responsible, attempts to apply lean thinking into the organization will be met with frustration and very little improvement (if any). In most cases, it can actually make things worse. Kaizen is about self-development, which begins with the courage to question assumptions and open up to learning. Those who think they already know the answers are not ready for lean.

      I believe W. Edwards Deming summed it up best when he said, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”


      Posted by Gregg Stocker | November 16, 2017, 7:57 am

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