Lean Thinking and Embodied Cognition

By Jon Miller Updated on November 24th, 2018

In the study of the mind through philosophy, psychology and biology, there is a theory called embodied cognition. Unlike the assumption that the mind is generated only by the brain, embodied cognition claims that many features of cognition are shaped by aspects of an organisms’s entire body and physical environment. How a creature forms concepts, communicates, reasons, makes judgment or solves problems is affected by type of  body they have. It is affected by how it interacts with the environment. It is affected by the assumptions about the world that are built into the structure of the body.

Embodied cognition influences emerging fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and perhaps broadens how we recognize intelligence in other creatures or systems. The modern organization is often described as having cognitive features such as learning, innovating, communicating. While we don’t recognize organizations as living organism in the same way that we do humans, clown fish or hummingbirds, there are similarities. Organizations are born, they grow, and they die. They are situated in a physical environment. They take in goods and information, make decisions about the future, solve problems and gain memories. Functioning biological human organisms are one the main components of organizations. It would not be surprising then, if organizations exhibited some traits of embodied cognition.

Here are some parallels with respect to the implications of embodied cognition and how applying lean principles to organizations changes the way humans think.

Go see. Facts exist outside of ourselves in the environment, in how we exchange material and information, and in how the bodies of other people move. Lean thinking requires that we go out and interact with our environment in order to see reality and gather facts. This is the basis for all improvement.

Move stuff. Whether it is machines, instruments, walls or desk, the importance in lean of making physical changes cannot be overstated. It improves visibility, creates flow, and brings people together. Sometimes lean is criticized for its eagerness to rearrange the furniture, tear down walls, and physically redesign workspaces. If humans think with a combination of our brains, bodies and other environmental assets, then it only makes sense to experiment with how moving stuff helps us think better.

Gemba walks. Compared to front line workers and managers, senior management is less connected to the “body” or physical aspects of the organization. They exist almost like a living brain in a jar, unaware of the messy world outside of the laboratory. Well-structured gemba walks through an environment where teams huddle around visual standards can reintegrate these senior leaders back into the organization’s embodied cognition.

Teams. People get things done when formed into effective teams. A team is a group of people with differing physical and mental skills, brought together in a specific environment for a specific conceptual purpose. Teams embody a more socially and technically advanced form of cognition.

Everybody solves problems. Embodied cognition claims that how we think can be influenced by the states of our bodies and where we are located. Cognition is seen as an extended system made up of a broad array of resources from the brain, body, and environment. In other words, the brain is not the only resource we have available to us problem solving. The analogy is clear. The MBAs, MBBs, VPs of expertise – the so-called brains of the company – are not enough to build a thriving, cognitive organization. All parts of the organizational body – every person in every environment – must be engaged.

Embodied cognition can give us insight into how we as individual humans think and behave. It can also suggest ways we can deliberately design our organizations to be more effective.

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