Chess Masters and Lean Thinkers

I found an interesting parallel between lean thinking and game mastery in a book about the history of board games by Tristan Donovan titled It’s All A Game. In a section of the book discussing chess, the author introduced an insight about how the minds of chess masters work. Psychologist Alfred Binet studied French chess master Alphonse Goetz. He could play and win 8 simultaneous games of chess blindfolded. Binet expected that the chess master had a detailed photograph in his mind of all of the boards and the locations of every piece. The assumption was that mastery meant staying on top of all of the details of every game board. In fact, the chess master had no such detailed mental picture.

When asked to describe what was in his mind, Goetz drew “a ghostly, fuzzy board that was missing most of its squares”. This sketch was free of any playing pieces. Instead there were diagonal, horizontal and vertical lines representing the possible movements of all of the pieces. It was a surprising find, nearly the opposite of what Binet had expected in terms of clarity and detail. The mental map was not one of “what they are” but of “what they could do”. There is parallel here to lean thinking, in which we always look at the current state with a view to how things can change, how they can be improved.

When attempting to redesign processes to become customer-signaled, flowing on-time waste-minimal, we are taught to think of a not in terms of what a process looks like or what it is called, but rather what it does. Amateur attempts at kaizen just rearrange the furniture, while the best examples examine the purpose of each process and challenge how things are done. For example a CNC machine is seen as “create hole”. Just as there are many ways a chess player can take another piece, there are many ways to make a hole. Mastery in both chess and lean allows us to see how to select and combine potential actions in the most competitive way.

There was no need for the chess master to know the color of the square or the shape of any piece. These superficial things had no impact on winning or losing a game. What mattered was whether there was a piece on a particular square and where it could move. To a chess master, “visualizing more would be a distraction”. As in lean thinking, less is more. Lean thinking also helps us compete better by reducing distractions, and creating focus, whether it be in the business strategy, through a focused rapid improvement effort, or by replacing multi-tasking with flow, or by employing simple and clear visual controls to surface problems quickly. Our bodies and minds can only do so much, why overburden by visualizing details that don’t matter?

People can lose track of what’s important when they focus on superficial details. Lean thinkers who are just getting started often focus too much on their products, their machines, their IT systems, their marketing campaigns, whatever familiar pieces they move around on their chessboard every day. They ask, “How does lean apply in my unique industry, with my products, my seasonality..?” and so forth. Maturity in lean thinking allows us to focus on listening to what customers want and to examine how competitively each of our daily activities contributes towards it, to keep the purpose of the chess match in mind rather than the appearance of the chessboard.

This is captured in my favorite quote from the book:

to the inner eye, a bishop is not a uniquely shaped piece, but rather an oblique force

Something that is oblique is not clear and direct. In the mind of chess master Goetz, a fuzzy set of possibilities. Away from chess, there is rarely a direct, clear line between the work that we do and the value that the customer pays for. The connection is oblique. Delays, correction and overproduction can sidetrack our efforts to convert work into value. The customer does not want the hole. They want the function served by that hole. The hole contributes to the working of a more complex machine or product. Even that machine or product is not what the customer is actually buying, but rather the convenience, prestige or comfort provided by owning that machine. Checkmate is satisfying the customer, and there are various ways oblique forces can be combined to that end.

Amateurs try to imagine the exact board with no detail overlooked. Masters know what information to focus on and what to ignore. Perennial winners understand the game deeply and hold oblique forces at their command. Grandmasters redesign the game to make the forces less oblique. What do you see when you envision your business with your inner eye?


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