Brain Science on How Lean Works

By Jon Miller Updated on May 20th, 2017

How does Lean work? There are rational, that is to say scientific, explanations. It works because when outputs are increase and inputs decreased, profit follows. Lean works because flow, pull and visualization remove waste and expose problems. Solving these problems and maintaining flow reduces inputs. Lean works because humans working within flow production, solving problems and improving their work are happier and more productive? Why are lean problem solvers more productive? Because human brains are wired to be that way.

The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance, written by Friederike Fabritius and Hans Hagemann, combines insights from cognitive neuroscience are with experience in management consulting to reveal how peak performance actually works. Throughout the book there are parallels to lean thinking. Here are a few.

Respect for Humanity

In lean management we speak about respect for people. Unused creativity is the eighth waste, lean should make work easier and safer, people should be valued as individuals in the workplace, etc. These things sound good, and we all wish for these things, but do we understand why they are pillars or lean? Why they are necessary for high performance?

Dr. Deming exhorted us to remove fear. We now know that social and physical threats give us a rush of cortisol in our bloodstream which make our muscles stronger, but can cut off our cognitive resources at high levels. In contrast, studies show that when praised or rewarded, people feel good and perform better. “Creating a climate of appreciation in companies is the best thing you can do,” according to Hagemann.

“There is one thing that determines the highest performance, and that is psychological safety,” Hagemann said. “If the team knows it is psychologically safe — which [includes] the reward cycle, the climate of appreciation, being respected and accepted — there is a high predictability for high performance.”

But why is safety predictive of high performance? Don’t we all have experiences of doing heroic things in difficult circumstances, deadlines and do-or-die situations? If we could just keep people in an amped-up state, wouldn’t they always perform like that? Scientifically speaking, “We don’t have the idea of a stressed out top performer.”  It seems that being worried or distracted by safety concerns drains mental and physical resources. “The best possible situation in this context is experiencing flow, where everything seems to go very smoothly and you are very creative and everything is coming to your mind easily.”

There are individual differences in age and gender, with some people performing better under stress and some in deep relaxation. Understanding how different people perform under conditions such as goals, deadlines, stress, consensus or conflict. While some people perform highly in high-pressure situations others do not. At a minimum, it is important for high-functioning teams to understand each other and strive to create conditions that get the best out of each individual.

One at a Time is Better

One of the hardest mental hurdles for many people in lean thinking is coming to understand that less is more. Working on one at a time is better overall than working on many things, or off-and-on in a batch. “There is no such thing as multi-tasking,” Hagemann says, if people understand multi-tasking to mean doing two things at the same time that both require cognitive resources. Sure, you can drive and hold a conversation, because you drive by autopilot without using cognitive resources, the automatic, or in neurological terms, the limbic system, handles that. You can’t, however, write an email message while holding a conversation. The brain is switching back and forth at the millisecond level, losing time and wasting energy in the process. We need to overcome the myth that multitasking is desirable or even heroic.

This myth of multitasking also explains why fear and stress aren’t long-term companions to high performance. It takes cognitive resources to keep negative emotions such as anger, frustration, disappointment, or fear, from taking up attention and processing time in our brain. We become too distracted, unfocused. We can worry about our problems or we can work on them, not both at once. We need to label some of them “important, not urgent” and work on the “important, and urgent” ones.

Trick your Brain with Kaizen?

In terms of changing habits, the first step is always hardest, write the authors.

The biggest obstacle to getting started is procrastination. The way to outsmart the brain’s natural aversion to change is to use kaizen, which involves taking very small steps. That enables you to steadily make progress without stetting off your brain’s evolutionary alarm bells.

I never thought of it that way, but it makes sense. As we make kaizen part of our daily work and a staple of lean management, our brains become more comfortable with small changes and experiments. As a result, the brain is less alarmed and fearful of change. When we practice kaizen daily, we are mentally on the balls of our feet rather than on our heels, nimble and ready to change direction if needed.

Lean management wasn’t intentionally designed based on an understanding of principles of brain science. But they do explain some of how Lean works. We know far more now about the neuroscience that explains human behavior. It’s reassuring to have the scientific underpinning for the practical methods and systems developed

If you are too busy multitasking to read this very useful book, you can listen to a recent podcast with the author.

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