When we use the expression “three-ring circus” we mean that the situation is chaotic and full of activity, not that it is entertaining. Chaotic or not, it takes effort to train animals to perform. Three-ring circuses and dysfunctional modern human workplaces have some things in common in this regard.
Elephants are large, intelligent, powerful animals. The circus elephant is trained to remain within the circus ring by being chained to a stake in the ground when it is a baby. The elephant is fed, cared for and limited in motion by the length of chain. It learns how far the chain allows it to move, which is the size of the ring. Even as a an adult when the elephant is strong enough to escape, it does not attempt to do so. Unchained, the elephant stays in the ring.
On the other end of the scale is the tiny flea. This insect is capable of jumping a distance 50 times greater than their body height. Within miniature flea circuses, these creatures jump up and down but do not escape the display. Fleas are trained by putting them in an empty, lidded jar. The fleas jump around, painfully hitting the lid, learning that it is better not to jump too high. Once the lid is removed, the flea continues to only jump low enough to avoid hitting the ceiling. It could easily escape, but does not.
These are examples of “learned helplessness”. This happens when a person or animal “learns” that it is helpless to avoid or escape a repeated unpleasant stimuli. Learned helplessness can cause an elephant, flea or human to accept new unpleasant situations as unavoidable, even when this is not true. The organism learns (falsely) that it has lost control and gives up trying. When we turn our organizations into a chaotic, three-ring circuses and repeatedly teach people, “We can’t change that,” or “We’ve tried it before and it didn’t work,” or “We’re too busy to improve,” we put the chains on human potential.
But there is good news. It is possible for humans to unlearn helplessness. Taking small positive actions reinforces that the self-belief of “Yes, we can,” as well as the neural circuits of self-help. Studies with animals show that even being aware that they have access to an off-switch for negative stimuli, even when they don’t use it, helps reduce anxiety. Studies of the benefits of exercise on anxiety and depression suggest that it is not how much exercise we do that matters, but that we do something at all. Solving small problems, removing small distractions, distancing ourselves from negative messages all contribute to helping our well-being by repeating self-help behavior.
Like circus-trained elephants or fleas, human organizations teach people beliefs and concepts which are incorrect. Some of these may cause us to behave as though we are helpless. If the two core elements of of lean management are continuous improvement and respect for people, then it stands to reason that lean leaders must be aware of policies, processes, incentives and messages that contribute to learned helplessness and must actively remove these negative stimuli. Lean leaders must also teach people that they can continuously improve, that they can help themselves and help others. Leaders must encourage people to take positive actions, even if very small. They must solicit and develop the creative ideas of their people. Lean leaders must teach their people “learned helpfulness”.