In an oddity of human behavior, we pay more respect to the unfamiliar than to the familiar. This is true towards people, processes and situations. When we meet someone new we are more likely to be polite to them than to a friend or a person whom we know well. When we are unaccustomed or inexperienced at a task, we are more cautious, careful and attentive. Walking a familiar path, we can let our mind wander and arrive at our destination almost unconsciously, while a new road demands our attention.
When an environment becomes very familiar, we experience diminished physiological or emotional responses to frequently repeated stimuli. We become habituated to it. We respond to new stimuli, but our response dulls as it becomes more and more familiar. Our brains tend to ignore anything that becomes too common and predictable. The expression “familiarity breeds contempt” reflects this insight about human nature, and this also teaches us a few things about Lean management.
Standards give us predictability and reliability, but the flip side is work becoming too process-oriented, bureaucratic, and standardized. We progress from unaccustomed to accustomed, from in training to seasoned. Once routine we are habituated and eventually bored. When this happens, careless errors can result in accidents and poor-quality work. Adherence to standards leads to habituation and its hazards, yet standard work is a cornerstone of the Lean house. What gives?
The answer is that standard work must be paired with kaizen in order for each of these to be effective. People need familiar, predictable environments in order to consistently do good work. People need novelty to remain engaged enough in their work to do a good job. We turn the familiar into the novel and challenging by pairing standard work with kaizen. Setting the standard raises awareness of the challenge, the ideal, the stretch, so that the gap is evident to the person doing the work and to outside observers. This creates dissatisfaction with the familiar, but not contempt, allowing a positive tension and attention to improvement opportunities.
Enabling to people solve their own problems helps to refresh the familiar and keep it interesting. This avoids the hazards that come with habituation, such as when our brains ignore unsafe conditions or problems within the current condition due to repeated exposure to them. The human brain rewards us with a dose of dopamine when we develop our own insights and solve our own problems. Humans will seek out this feeling. Once associated with problem solving within routine work, this helps keep us more alert for such opportunities.
Within personal relationships also, familiarity breeds contempt. In an organization people work with other people who have different levels of experience, education, responsibility and ability. We expected to recognize, respect and be respected for these differences. Habituation with others may get in the way of respect for people as a result. A friendly atmosphere can be confused with respect for people, and familiarity can lead to informality, which can lead to being too casual, and this can be taken as disrespect. People who get to know each other well can begin to dislike each other because they learn each other’s faults or bad habits too well. Putting respect for humanity into practice can be tricky.
Human brains keep the routine, old, uninteresting and familiar stimuli in our routine memory, below level of consciousness. What is fresh, challenging and new we keep in our working memory, whose capacity is more limited. That is why our brains work to move things from working to routine memory as we become practiced, familiar and experienced. Familiarity breeds contempt because this is more efficient for our energy-hungry brains. Fortunately, we can also use our brains to design Lean systems that keep us aware of abnormalities within the familiar, build novelty creation into our routine, and treat familiar people and situations with the respect they deserve.