The Lean Brain, Post 1: Value is a Conversation

  Lean says: Define Customer Value

Your brain says: I’ve seen this countless times before - I know what my customer needs better than they do.

What’s at play here: Expertise bias. Overconfidence effect. Ivory tower syndrome. Ego.

There’s an old story about a man standing along a riverbank. He doesn’t see a bridge, but he does see someone on the opposite bank fishing.

“Hey!” he shouts across the water. “How do I get to the other side of the river?”

The other man yells back, “You’re already on the other side of the river!”

Perspective. More than our own exists. Unfortunately we’re not wired to immediately see things beyond our own context and so from an anthropological standpoint, having a self-centered worldview makes perfect sense. Man’s survival did not depend on knowing what his fellow hunter-gatherers thought, felt, or needed. Biologically speaking, seeing things from our own side of the proverbial river is cognitively expedient - it’s quick, convenient, and let’s face it practical.

Acknowledging there might be an alternative or even multiple perspectives, acknowledging “their there” might deviate from our own requires mental effort. When we fall into the trap of assuming only one truth, of applying a singular mental model, we miss inherent complexities and nuances obliterating not only the possibility of finding better alternatives, but we guarantee that we will at some point fall short of our customer’s expectations.

How to mitigate: Your gut instinct, you experience, your myriad belts and certifications and mastery aside, you do not know what your customer wants. And THEY are the arbiter of value, not you. Replace assumptions with humility. Ask open-ended questions. Endeavor to gain an unbiased understanding of - and deeper insight into - what your client explicitly wants and why.

Next up in The Lean Brain series: Visualization Begets Alignment


Tonianne is partner & principal consultant at Modus Cooperandi, co-author of the Shingo Research and Publication Award winning Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, co-founder of Kaizen Camp™ and Modus Institute. Toni explores the relationship between performance, motivation, and neuroscience, is passionate about the roles intention, collaboration, value-creation, and happiness play in “the future of work,” and appreciative of the ways in which psychology, Lean, systems thinking, and the work of W. Edwards Deming can facilitate these ends. She enjoys Coltrane, shoots Nikon, butchers the Italian language (much to the embarrassment of her family), is a single malt enthusiast, and is head over heels in love with her adopted home, Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @Sprezzatura.

Introducing The Lean Brain Series by Tonianne DeMaria

While heading to a session at the most recent Lean Transformation Summit, I found myself confronted with signage that posed the following open-ended question:

“All problem solvers must…”

Given how the work we do at Modus Cooperandi focuses largely on the nexus between Lean for knowledge work, behavioral economics, neuroscience, and the teachings of W. Edwards Deming, one response in particular resonated:

“Understand how their behaviors are contributing to the problem.”

While Lean offers us a set of principles and practices to help us create value for our customers, for our organizations, and for ourselves, it’s our brains that seem to pose the greatest challenge to its successful implementation.

But it’s not our fault, you see. Our brains hate us.

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit harsh. They do nevertheless tend to act in their own self-interest to conserve cognitive energy - opting for rapidity over reason - often sabotaging our best intentions with their behavior-impacting shortcuts. Which is precisely what Jim Benson and I have encountered in the hundreds of workshops we’ve offered where we ask participants, What is your biggest impediment to implementing Lean?

The universal response? Myself.

To understand why this is, we need to look no further than the System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK). With SoPK, Dr. Deming explains how people and processes are all part of a complex web of interrelated systems. Among those is our cognitive system.

In contrast to that which is found on the factory floor, knowledge worker’s “machinery” - their brains - can be capricious, rendering thought processes less than reliable, and actions less than rational.

For Lean thinkers who engage in knowledge work, even a cursory understanding of how the brain can contribute to behaviors impeding Lean’s five key principles (as Dr. Deming instructs, having an understanding of psychology) is crucial to identifying where Lean efforts might become sabotaged.

So stayed tuned for my latest series of posts: The Lean Brain.

Post 1: Value is a Conversation

Post 2: Visualization Begets Alignment

Post 3: Flow: You Can’t Step In the Same River Twice

Post 4: Push is Blind. Pull is Informed. See Beyond the Silo

Post 5: Improvement is Not an Option