10,999,950 More Reasons to Think “Yes We Can”

Sooner or later everyone involved in leading change faces naysayers and passive resisters. With the power of their minds these people add friction to the PDCA improvement cycle, noise in the signal of root cause analysis, and turbulence to the laminar flow of creative ideas. One of the guiding principles of lean thinking exists specifically to overcome this drag. We ask people “instead of giving reasons why something can’t be done, think of how to make it possible”. If you are looking for another lean thinking principle to adopt, this is one that can make a giant difference.

When a scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.

These are the words of Arthur C. Clarke, the man who gave us the science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, inspired the invention of the geostationary communications satellite, moved to Sri Lanka so he could spend more time scuba diving, and endowed an astronomical observatory there so he could gaze at the stars and think the impossible. Arthur CC was one cool dude.
Why can’t we flip the mental switch from “Not!” to “Why not?” There are two main reasons: people know why something can’t be done, or don’t know how it can be done. This is what Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard spoke of how we fool ourselves:

There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.

Knowing a false “why not” and willful “not knowing how” are both opposites of knowing that there is somehow a way, through perception and persistence. On the one hand there is simple ignorance. Charles Darwin said:

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge; it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

Yet many of the naysayers are leaders of one form or another and far from ignorant people. Shouldn’t people who learn more become more open-minded and likely to think it’s possible to solve our problems? What sets apart the ignorant scientists and thinkers from those knowledgeable yet confidence thinkers who succeed in solving problems? In a word, bias. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said:

The discovery of truth is prevented more effectively, not by the false appearance of things present and which mislead into error, not directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice.

Most of us are prejudiced. We can’t help but be. We perceive the world according to our mental models, as we wish it to be, not as it is. We want to see the world in ways that comfort us, protect our egos and our beliefs. Some of the more memorable benchmarking trips I have been on featured encounters with people to whom the tenets of lean manufacturing and Toyota’s leadership were unacceptable. They saw nothing but evidence to confirm their bias. The fast pace of work, the lack of safety glasses being worn and the piece of trash that lingers on the floor long enough between team leader standard work cycles for the odd tour group to see, all confirmation that the positive stories are some myth, or that high profits are due to protected markets. They might have been 100% right, I’m biased the other way. The opposite bias also exists, and biases in either direction limit our ability to learn.
Failure to become problem solvers, if due to inaction or resistance to action, then traced to ignorance born of overconfidence and bias, leaves us with the question of why we perceive with such bias. Studies reveal that our conscious minds process about 50 bits of information every second. This might seen like a lot, and it certainly adds up minute after minute, hour after hour. However when we consider that our senses receive 11 million bits per second of information, this is not so impressive. We ignore, filter out or process subconsciously the staggering majority of information we perceive. While it’s not yet fully understood how, it appears our minds follow the well-worn path of perceiving the reality we expect to see rather than in its remaining 10,999,950 bit of glory. American philosopher Paul Weiss said:

It’s one thing not to see the forest for the trees, but then to go on to deny the reality of the forest is a more serious matter.

In those 11 million bits per second there is an awful lot of potential for problem solving if we just acknowledge that our ignorance is vast and if we allow our mental models to mold around the bias of “how to make it possible.”

3 Comments

  1. Mark Welch

    March 26, 2010 - 5:58 am

    As I read this piece a quote from Ted Kennedy when eulogizing his brother, Bobby, came to my mind… “Some see things as they are and ask why. He saw things that never were and asked, “Why not?” This is the kind of perspective we need to have with lean thinking. And for me, personally, with many things in life.

  2. sharma

    March 27, 2010 - 4:08 am

    Dear Jon,
    As always this article was interesting to read. It reminds me 2 phrases of Jack Trout “WE CANT GO THERE FROM HERE” and “THERE IS JUST NOT ENOUGH MONEY IN THIS WORLD”, which describes the common behavior of pessimists.
    Secondly, when scientist say that something is not possible, they bring bad repute to their community. If science runs on facts, why do the spacecrafts fail at the time of take-offs?
    I have seen that it is difficult to “convince” people on the benefits of LEAN THINKING, and they all have innumerable reasons why this thing wont work in their factory. Secondly, they expect INSTANT results. On second thoughts I feel after all its not necessary to convince them. They give their lean competitors the opportunity to outperform them very easily.

  3. John Santomer

    March 27, 2010 - 7:27 am

    Dear Jon,
    In Kaizen, obstacles are “Golden Eggs” of opportunities ready to be cracked and found ways to triumph over. It is difficult to ask people to change mind sets and do away with their prejudices. Coming up with well thought-out proposal of steps to address obstacles is better than to give reasons why it can’t be resolved. This responsibility is heavier for anyone with position; their authority means people look up to them for their decisive leadership. What can be said for anyone in position to come up to the table bringing more complaints, finger pointing and not owning up to their responsibilities? Well, I guess your column is not yet rated for that!
    As with the force, there is also the Dark Side…Like the Sith; it doesn’t sit on the “Golden Egg” waiting for it to hatch but works in stealth waiting for the next individual to fool himself of the impossibility that something can be done. Then it pounces to take over the “confident ignorant”. Passive resistance is also favorable to their cause as the Major Stakeholders soon forget the issue and will no longer have clear information on what has just transpired. That rotten egg left untouched in time and that which the Sith had waited to rot will be rolled down the hen house for other fowl beasts to devour…Soon along with the “ignorant hen” that did not sat on it…