A Simple Hand Gesture that is Key to Goal Alignment

By Jon Miller Updated on June 3rd, 2018

Lean management aims to serve others by doing more with less, thereby sustainably reaping just rewards for such service. Among other things, this requires everyone in the organization to continuously improve products, processes, services and as a person. Transforming our thinking style from traditional  management thinking to lean is a big ask. Getting everyone aligned with this goal and engaged in new behaviors is not easy. If only humans were born knowing a way to do this…

In fact there is a simple hand gesture that is vital to goal alignment. This gesture is one we all know how to do, and have since our earliest years. In some societies this gesture signals dominance. In some cultures this gesture is considered rude. In others, it may be taken as a threat, or even as a hex. This gesture is digital, in its original meaning.

Pointing is a key ingredient to human language, social interaction and cooperation between people. We point when we give directions, locate a person across the room whom we are talking about, identify an item we wish to purchase or simply stab at the air when speaking with emphasis.

Studies show that this type of pointing is unique to humans. Not even great apes who are our closes relatives do it. Domestic dogs are able to follow a human’s pointing, and many dog lovers will attest to how these animals can seek to share our intentionality. Infants communicate by pointing at things from about nine months old. Many weeks before they can speak in simple sentences, babies can let us know what they want, or what they want us to notice. Pointing is part of our common humanity from early childhood. As adults, we often incorporate pointing into quality, safety or maintenance checks, sharpening our attention with a physical act of remembering. We might feel silly pointing at a checkpoint and saying, “OK” to nobody in particular.

Professor N. J. Enfield is the chair of linguistics at the University of Sydney, and a research associate in the Language and Cognition Group at the Max Planck Institute. He suggests that the foundation of language is not to be found in how its logical structure is mapped to our brains, but rather our capacity for “the communion of minds through shared intentionality”. Our ability to extended a finger towards the object of our intent, and to recognize when others are doing so, may be a simple but important building block of human language.

Enfield goes as far as to say that “shared intentionality” makes human relationships possible, and also “Pointing does not just manipulate the other’s focus of attention; it momentarily unites two people” through that shared focal point. He links the simple act of pointing to shared attention, which allows mutual understanding of beliefs, perceptions, goals or desires. For various reasons in adulthood we forget how effective pointing can be for creating attention, shared intentionality, and alignment toward goals.

Perhaps we were better at pointing and sharing our intentions a few decades ago, when our ideas were presented on screen from transparencies via overhead projectors. We had to stand near the glowing box, move the transparencies one by one, and use a the classic human finger or stick to point to an item of emphasis. These days we may use a laser to draw attention, or even run a video conference where nobody sees anybody else’s human hand at all.

If humans are wired to pay attention to the pointing gesture of other human hands, and if factors such as modern technology and globally-dispersed companies make it harder for us share our intentionality in the originally digital way, we need to stop and think of how we can add respect for our humanity back into our attempts to align people towards our goals.

  1. Jay Bitsack

    June 6, 2018 - 4:53 pm

    Hi Jon,

    Although I don’t believe the best description for any entity practicing TRUE LEAN THINKING AND BEHAVING as being that of a LEAN “MANAGEMENT” SYSTEM (see Note below for why), I do believe in POINTING. It’s a practice that I’d like to see being used more often, not only by production workers, but also by members of an organization’s MANAGEMENT TEAM. Why? Because, as you indicated in your article, Dr. Enfield’s research indicates that the act of pointing helps establish a strong common link between those minds engaged in the act of pointing… It establishes a common/shared focal point… something that is increasing hard to find in many organizations between members of the senior level management community and those most responsible for adding value.

    That said, I also believe that it’s possible to point to something that is not physically tangible as in a belief, a desired/targeted objective, a direction, and most critical in a business context… a TRUE NORTH ORIENTATION. Without being able to “POINT” toward a targeted/desired future state-of-being (as part of the TNO), it’s not possible to have common/concerted movement that equates to making progress instead of just a lot of motion.

    [Note: One of the reasons I don’t have a strong affinity for referring to “LEAN” as a “MANAGEMENT SYSTEM” is because TRUE LEAN THINKING AND BEHAVING needs to be prevalent throughout an ENTIRE ENTERPRISE – from top to bottom and end-to-end – as a TOTAL SYSTEM. And as Deming so often pointed out, MANAGEMENT (i.e., the senior-most ranking personnel in an organization’s hierarchy) holds PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITY for how the OVERALL SYSTEM (including ALL of its elements or component parts) functions. Most important, I see the primary responsibility of SENIOR LEVEL MANAGEMENT as being creating, sustaining, and evolving a WORK ENVIRONMENT which is most conducive to having all members of the organization exercise their fullest discretionary THINKING AND BEHAVING in pursuit of the organization’s TRUE NORTH ORIENTATION (TNO). And it’s that TNO that needs to be the COMPELLING FORCE behind the common/shared pursuit of and sustainment of the organization’s superior operating performance across all specified/chosen critical dimensions.]

    • Jon Miller

      June 6, 2018 - 11:13 pm

      Hello Jay
      I agree with your point. My use of “management” similar to Drucker’s definition “Management is a multi-purpose organ that manages business and manages managers and manages workers and work.” Even if we don’t think of ourselves as members of management, we must all manage our time, manage our energy, manage our money, manage our relationships, etc. in order to be happy. Whenever lean thinking offers a better way to manage, we should point to it.

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