For Continuous Improvement, Think Like a Child

By Jon Miller Updated on October 26th, 2016

Financial Advisor

Listening to a Freakonomics Radio episode titled Think Like a Child reminded me of the words of a TPS sensei. When a kaizen team was faced with puzzling process failures, complex problems, or a need for innovative designs, sensei would say, “Think like a fifth grader.” Stand there, observe, keep it simple. Like most sensei talk, this direction wasn’t followed lot of theory or explanation.

The radio program explained how adults are easier to fool with magic tricks than are children. This is due to the differences in how adults and children think, namely in areas of attention, curiosity and how they approach problem solving. The same observations can be applied to how we attempt continuous improvement.

Be curious

The first trait of child-like thinking applies equally well to continuous improvement as spoiling magic tricks. It is being curious.

“There’s a sense that when a kid watches a trick … they’re asking a question at every second. They’re really approaching it with this sort of constant sense of curiosity and constant sense of trying to understand what’s going on.”

We can nurture this quality in ourselves by constantly asking, “How did that happen?” and “Why do we do things this way?” Making improvement begins with a genuine desire to look at the situation and understand what is going on.

Scatter attention

A surprising observation is that because children are less able to focus on one thing, they are able to divide their attention to better take in the whole.

“Adults are really good at focusing on one thing and ignoring peripheral distractions, whereas kids are really good at sort of shotgunning their attention all over the place. Which is a good way to learn. It’s good when you’re first learning how things work, when you’re first exploring the world.”

The point is not to become unfocused. Rather, it is to avoid focusing on the details too early, especially in the early steps of problem investigation when it is tempting to jump to a solution.

State the obvious

Once we know the trick behind the magic, it becomes obvious and even difficult to miss. Once we know how to name, categorize and quantify waste, variation and overburden it becomes hard to ignore. Once we are assimilated into an organization’s culture, we can be blinded to its counterproductive aspects. Worse, many poor cultures make people feel unsafe in pointing out the obvious, the simple reality of the situation.

“Something else that kids do is they will state facts, or describe something that’s pretty obvious. Whereas adults, we tend to think it indicates that we are not thinking hard.”

Those of us who have been consultants, coaches or improvement leaders have asked the “stupid” question or made the obvious observation. Whether innocently ignorant questions, or used as a teaching technique, these are effective eye-openers.

Think small

By nature, lean transformations are big. The scope is the whole enterprise. It is a long-term effort. Viewing it as a binary succeed-or-fail solution is not wise. Even with specific improvement projects, attempting to “boil the ocean” leads to stumbles.

“I think there’s a temptation to try to be something special and to take on a big problem. But its actually getting into the realm of thinking about a tiny little question that maybe once you learn the answer would actually tell you about a lot of other things you might be interested in. You might be able to generalize.”

Small things capture the interest and attention of small children, gradually expanding our understanding of the world through exploration. Continuous improvement is enabled when we successfully tackle and learn from small problems, increasing our problem solving powers.

Enjoy what you do

The radio program describes the child-like ability to enjoy what we do an “unfair competitive advantage” over others who do not. It’s hard to argue with that.

Be free to fail

This quality of child-like thinking requires a little adult supervision. That is to say, in work or other social endeavors we need permission by other adults to try and to fail. When we think too much about risks and personal consequences of failure we shut down our creative minds. We take the safe course, even when that is inaction.

“[…] when we’re trying to decide on a course of action, we’re always balancing the risks and utilities. Whether that’s a risk to my reputation or my ego or my future interactions with other people or just a risk to my profit margin. And kids aren’t in that world of […] risk and utility calculations.”

Being free from the risk of failure allows us to play. When we have permission to fail, we open our minds to innovative ideas and new options in continuous improvement. Let’s play.


    October 27, 2016 - 12:45 pm

    Great article about the perspective needed to pursue continuous improvement.

  2. Mohamed AboDeeb

    October 31, 2016 - 11:21 am

    I like the simplicity, and I can see the real philosophy of the Lean thinking as a way for life.
    really Great thoughts and believes.

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