Headwinds, Tailwinds, Continuous Improvement and Respect for Humanity

By Jon Miller Updated on June 10th, 2017

A Freakonomics Radio episode from March of this year titled Why is My Life So Hard? reminds us of the importance of gratitude, introduces the notion and Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry, and offers a new way to understand Lean management as the pairing of continuous improvement and respect for humanity.

The Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry is explained with a cycling analogy. If we are riding our bicycle and face headwinds that make it harder, we notice this obstacle and wish for tailwinds. However, when the wind shifts to our back, we soon take it for granted and do not appreciate it, even to the point of becoming unhappy that the going is still hard. The podcast observes

Most of us feel we face more headwinds and obstacles than everyone else — which breeds resentment. We also undervalue the tailwinds that help us — which leaves us ungrateful and unhappy.

Why does this asymmetry exist? Why do we feel the obstacles more keenly than the forces that are helping us along? Are we all just unappreciative, entitled complainers? Cornell University Professor of Psychology Tom Gilovich explains,

We have to pay attention to the barriers in front of us because we have to get over them, or get through them in some way. We have to overcome them. We don’t have to pay attention to those things that are boosting us along. We can just be boosted along. And that fundamental asymmetry in attention is the headwinds/tailwind asymmetry.

We are wired to detect threats, obstacles and barriers. To help us survive, we pay less attention to things going in our favor, which by nature present no threat to us. As a result we experience emotions that are the opposite of gratitude – being unappreciative, irritated or resentful. These feelings stress us out, are blame-oriented and prevent us from thinking rationally. These factors result in poor performance and poor health.

One of the changes central to becoming a lean organization is that people have the mindset to approach headwinds, or problems, as opportunities for problem solving, continuous improvement, innovation and learning. On the other hand, a criticisms I have often heard is that “Lean is so negative” meaning that it focuses on waste, customer complaints, problems, being dissatisfied with the status quo, needing to always find faster, better and cheaper ways of doing things. Lean is all about looking for and walking into the headwinds. This would seemingly only make the Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry worse, perhaps even eroding the motivation and morale of people who are already prone to feel that luck is against them.

To people who have not experienced the power of a group of people who are empowered, supporting and engaged in problem solving, so much discussion of the badness of the current situation may seem heavy. They may think it better just to sweep the issues under the rug, or at the very least balance problem talk with happy talk. But this misses the point. The other half of Lean is respect for humanity. Continuous improvement relies on people. Respect for humanity requires that we learn about how our minds trick us with biases like the Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry. Improvement without respect is mechanistic, and respect without improvement is empty talk. Lean needs to balance a problem focus with showing gratitude for our customers, for the time and resources to learning and innovate, for team members.

Studies over the past twenty years have found positive correlations between practicing gratitude and benefits such as better sleep, fewer depressive symptoms, and fewer doctor visits. The advice from gratitude researchers is to think about and write down everything that we have to be grateful for. This is good but it may be difficult to add to this list every time we feel headwinds. Tom Gilovich suggests we ask ourselves, “What are my tailwinds?” This is a more process-oriented question. We can start with getting the facts of the situation. Objectively recognizing those things giving us a boost can plant the seeds of gratitude, even when we aren’t feeling it.

When we understand Lean thinking, we become grateful that we can turn our headwinds into tailwinds with system for continuous improvement and through respecting the people whose teamwork and creativity make it possible. Respect for humanity may need to begin with gratitude that we are even here at all. We were born. We survived to adulthood. We are part of a family, an organization, a functioning society. We woke up this morning. What good can we do with our day?

  1. Sam Selay

    June 12, 2017 - 11:19 am

    Turning our headwinds into tailwinds reminds me of turning obstacles into opportunities as referred to in The Obstacle Is The Way by Holiday

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