Nov 6, 2011

My brain told me

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"How did you know that?" we asked a 3-year old. His answer? "My brain told me."

Yesterday was one of those weird days where I kept hearing about the brain and how we behave. The fundamental fact is that we have an organ in our head, related to the rest of our body, where our actions, thinking, stories of ourselves, beliefs, relationships, feelings, and temperament come from. It's hard to think of it as a separate entity from our "self."

Emerging neuroscientific and psychological research may be important to our understanding of lean as a culture and management philosophy. So much of the discussion is about why the people driving the management bus don't "get it," about why cultures don't change, and why so few organizations have been able to sustain lean if they even made a try at implementing it. These issues all boil down to why human beings in organizational systems have a hard time moving together to a different way of doing things.

Let's look superficially for a moment at what Dr. Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara, tells us about what's going on in the noisy brain. He says there is a constant narrator telling us a story of ourselves and experiences. Anyone who has tried to meditate or has become "lost in thought" knows that. But the stories are often laced with fiction, false memories, and faulty beliefs. (New York Times, "Decoding the Brain's Cacophony")

The manager who doesn't get why lean thinking may be better than traditional thinking is telling himself or herself a story about being rewarded because of doing certain things in certain circumstances despite experiences where those actions don't work well at all. The story may be filled in by believing that the problems are someone else's fault, or because the economy is bad, or the planets are aligned unfavorably. What to do next is part of the story too -- get someone fired or hired, put pressure on someone, buy a new IT system or machine, borrow money. Walking through workplaces and asking what's going on, leading an improvement event, re-examining a value stream rarely fit into the story. Though painful, it's coherent.  The person may tell the story to others and explain the belief of how things should work, or complain about why things aren't working.

Gazzaniga's study of people with brains "split" by surgery to treat epilepsy or by stroke show that when they "see" things with only one eye, they may not be able to "know" that it is there. It doesn't make sense to the part of the brain telling the story. In such cases, the storyteller will make up some explanation that may be completely irrational but will make the story coherent.(The Neurontal Platonist, Journal of Consciousness Studies.)

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The self is the hero of the story. I am doing things right. I have the right skills. Things going wrong are not my fault. I'm not here to make friends. I compete with my peers for power or money. My [boss, wife, children, husband, employees, parents...] don't understand me. You know how it goes. You have a similar storyteller in your head.

Doubt about the way to do things doesn't easily enter the story, unless enough ideas have penetrated to compare his or her current predicament to something that might be improved through fundamentally changing behavior about how people and processes should be managed.

That's just one example of why a person may resist new ideas with great force of will, especially if they mean facing the realization that everything you believed about cause and effect are simply not true, and that you don't have the skills to do your job. Humility and our cultural history don't go together.

I think it's important to understand that resistance or opposition come from the very way the brain works. It is not that person's "self" resisting or opposing. You can't blame someone for the way the brain works any more than you can blame someone for having a vascular system that produces high blood pressure. (If only the intervention was as easy as taking a pill.) But maybe you can help that person rewrite the story, become the hero another way without having to believe they are stupid or wrong. Maybe some people can accept that as a revelation. Most people aren't going to want that. Perhaps participating in an event that makes a difference helps write a new story of personal heroism, as a member of a team rather than as a lone ranger.

Would understanding more about the brain help us spread change -- what we call "lean" -- more widely and strategically? Let's think about it.


Connie said...

This is EXACTLY what Mike Rother is talking about in his book and his work on Toyota Kata -

This seems to be the most important thing we need to do.

Jamie Flinchbaugh said...

From a practical standpoint, I think if we adopt a philosophy that any failures of adoption are 100% our fault, instead of 100% their fault, we will be more likely to PDCA our way to success.

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