An article in Popular Science introduced some interesting research how to activate your brain’s ability to learn. The findings can be read as an interesting neuroscience-based argument in favor of daily stand up meetings, following standard work, kata, and any type of repetition that leads to improvement, for an extra few minutes per day.
In music, we practice scales to become familiar with the placement of notes on the instrument. In language learning, we drill verb conjugations and vocabulary. In martial arts, we practice kata until our motions are fluid and subconscious. We practice up to and through competence, and continue practicing in order to maintain and elevate our skill. But how many of us enjoy the repetition of practice? It is more enjoyable to jam, chat or spar. From the workplace perspective, managers prefer to see their people working, earning, rather than learning. And yet we also say that the 8th waste is the underutilization of human minds in the workplace. I’m often troubled by the phrasing of the so-called 8th waste as “we aren’t getting the most out of our people” rather than “we aren’t putting enough into our people.” Invest in developing people, show them respect, point the way, and the vast majority will gladly use their brains to the fullest.
When we persist in practicing even after we have become able to play the song (or perform a task) perfectly, scientists call this “overlearning”. It is not a negative, like overproduction, simply training beyond the point of improvement in that particular task or song. The study found that subjects who overlearned performed much better on the trained task than those who did not overlearn. Practicing a task you’ve already perfected for as few as 20 minutes leads to lasting improvements. Learning it better than perfectly? That’s continuous improvement! Maybe overlearning is a countermeasure to “underlearning”, a pithier name for the 8th waste.
If multiple tasks are being learned, the additional time spent overlearning does have a cost; the second task is learned less well than the overlearned one. However, as a whole, the combined learning of the two is more effective. This is another argument against multi-tasking when we are learning or trying to improve.
The fascinating part is that scientists are now able to pin these learning phenomena on specific brain chemicals and their functions. From the article,
What Watanabe found is that if you don’t overlearn, the brain has higher amounts of glutamate-dominate excitatory. Glutamate is a chemical that makes your brain plastic or more adept at learning. But overlearning decreases the amount of glutamate, and increases the amount of GABA, a chemical that stabilizes the brain.
Perhaps someday we will have an app that to optimize our practice time by monitoring glutamate and GABA levels while learning a particular task.
Until then, how can we use this information to be better at lean management, or good management by any name? This depends on our performance environment. Does our work have a higher degree of complexity and variability or is it relatively stable? Do we need to learn new information and retain it for a short time or for a long time? How much are interruptions and distractions part of the environment? In other words, how much cognitive load are we under? The article proposes that overlearning can add fluency to our performance of tasks, making us respond faster and better under cognitive load. If that sounds familiar, perhaps try practicing whatever kata you employ to go see, show respect, ask why and turn the PDCA millstone, not just to the point of competence but a few more minutes until GABA locks them in.