Lean thinking is a journey of learning. I believe that we learn best when we learn from each other. The KaiZone Community Outreach is a monthly series designed to promote interesting, thoughtful and entertaining discussion on a wide variety of Lean-related topics. By contributing to the discussion, you help us all to move forward on our personal Lean journeys, one comment at a time. That’s The KaiZone Way.
In a few seconds, I want you to sit back and relax. Close your eyes, and in as much detail as you can, create a mental picture of what a Lean process looks like. Not just any Lean process, but the ideal Lean process. What is the physical layout of the process? How do the materials flow? How do the people perform their work? I’m serious. Take a full minute and do it now. I’ll wait . . .
How detailed was the imagery in your mind? I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that most of you had a difficult time with this task. I know the first time that I tried it, I certainly did. Perhaps those of you with the good fortune to experience the Toyota Production System, or a similarly high-performing organization, firsthand found it very easy to generate a solid mental model. Because most of us do not fall into this bucket, however, I am assuming that was not the prevailing opinion.
By now, however, your probably wondering why I asked you to do so in the first place. What if I told you that single mental image represents the level of your current understanding, and ability to put into practice, Lean thinking. The more resolution in your mental model, the deeper your understanding. Little to no resolution? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Allow me to explain.
Our brains take in sensory information from our environment and (I’m skipping a few steps here) eventually encode it in such a way that it can be stored long-term in our minds. As we go about encountering new information in everyday life, whether consciously or subconsciously, our brains recall what has already been stored to form expectations about what will happen next. Our brains then compare our expectations to our actual perceptions, and in doing so, put our understanding of the world to the test. When our brains detect deviations from our expectations, that information is used to refine our mental models, and the new understanding is re-encoded again for long-term storage. This process is called learning.
Expertise is gained by the ability to detect minute differences between the expectations created in our minds, and our actual experiences. For example, Olympic-level gymnasts can perform amazing feats on a balance beam that an ordinary person would not even dream of attempting. The gymnast can move in such a way because they have developed the ability to identify and correct infinitesimal deviations in balance. And they’ve gained this ability through countless repetitions that have given them a highly-resolved understanding of what “good” feels like. They can immediately sense even the smallest differences from their expectations and can correct accordingly in real-time.
Our ability to learn and improve starts with a clear expectation in our minds for what “good” should look, feel, smell, sound, and taste like. Without this mental model, the brain struggles to make sense of its perceptions, and the learning process does not occur. No mental model = no learning. The teaching and the practice of Lean is no different, and my interactions with students and practitioners throughout the years have indicated to me that this is a MAJOR gap in the way we currently teach and coach Lean thinking.
I see my role as a Lean educator and coach as attempting to create a mental image of a “good” Lean process in the minds of my students. My goal is to give them a clear mental model to which they can compare their own processes, allowing them to see and correct the deviations, also known as wastes. For students with little to no background in Lean, I like show the following video in my classes to serve as a foundation on which they can start to build their mental model:
How have you formed your vision of Lean?”
What specifically helped to clarify your expectations of what a “good” Lean process should look like? Was it a video? An experience? A coach? A book? All of the above? Please share it with us. Those of you who have already learned can be a tremendous asset to those of us who still struggle if you would simply share your experiences in the comments section below.