Going Out of Our Minds with Lean Thinking

The expression, “walk a mile in their shoes before judging them,” means gaining understanding or empathy for another person’s experience or point of view. It’s mainly a mental exercise. But there are many practical applications of this in the continuous improvement field. I was reminded of this by an article in [email protected] that introduces “perspective taking” as a brain hack for problem solving and innovation.

In summary, neuroscience research at UPenn has shown that seeing things from the perspective of others activates the brain in ways that makes us smarter, more creative, and better problem solvers. This is also a skill we can practice and strengthen, building new connections in our brain. My favorite quote from the article is, “getting inside someone else’s head requires getting outside our own.” Here are a few continuous improvement practices for going out of our minds, in a positive way.

Seeing From the Customer’s Perspective

A fundamental principle of practically all business excellence practices and problem solving models is to focus on the customer. In any exchange of goods and services there is a customer-supplier relationship. It’s not too strong to say that the needs and desires of the customer provides the supplier with their reason for existence. Therefore, it’s important to develop a depth of understanding, empathy, and appreciation for the customer.

There are various ways that lean thinking encourages this. This includes building in customer requirements to each value stream map, the lean startup practice to “get out of the building” and observe customers using new products, to structured VOC or voice of the customer surveys. This works best when talking with actual customers, asking clarifying questions, and exercising the parts of our brain that build mental models of other people’s thoughts.

Becoming the Part

When doing an initial walkthrough of a value stream, lean practitioners use variations of the phrase “become the part” or “become the product” or “become the patient.” What this entails is that we visit every place and every step just as the “part” would. The question we ask as we walk through the flow is, “What happens to me next?” Sometimes the answer is “We put you on a shelf for a few weeks,” or “You sit and wait for the doctor for 45 minutes.” Often, this gives us an entirely different perspective than simply writing down numbers in a data box on a value stream map.

The Five M Plus One E Perspective

At deeper level of detail in problem solving, we have a perspective taking tool called the fishbone diagram. This way of visualizing cause-and-effect invites us to describe what could be affecting the process to have a specific undesired outcome. The perspectives are manpower, material, method, machine, measurement, and environmental factors, sometimes called mother nature to make it a set of six Ms.

We consider failures from each of these perspectives, mapping out possible chains of causation. The resulting diagram bears some resemblance to a herringbone pattern, thus the name. Although it’s rare that a team pinpoints the root cause of a problem with only a fishbone diagram exercise, it’s a systematic way to consider a a variety of options and perspectives before diving down the “5 Why” well.

The Wisdom of Cross-Functional Teams

With its roots in TQM and TQC, it’s no surprise that lean thinking emphasizes total involvement in continuous improvement. While the quality circles, suggestions schemes, and, to an extent, jishuken activities, focused people on improvement within their own work areas, modern lean thinking relies on cross-functional teams. This may be a Western contribution.

The cross-functional team aspect for kaizen events, which evolved from a marketing method for consultants to a primary vehicle for many transformations today, has cross-functional teams as a feature. A typical team mix is one-third of the members from the process in focus, one-third from upstream or downstream, and a third from unrelated areas or even external to the company. This combines the experts of the people who do the work with the naive questions of, “Why do you do it that way?” to enable perspective taking.

Regardless of Whether the Shoe Fits

Actually walking in someone else’s shoes is not recommended by podiatrists. That would only reveal that we have different shapes and sizes of feet, and varying tastes in footwear. But this discomfort with new experiences from taking new perspectives may be part of the point. Within any team, there will be opposing views, misconceptions, and bad habits. We don’t need to accept these other perspectives, but we have to make an effort to understand how they think.

For leaders and experts, it feels good to be right, at the center of attention, secure in their beliefs and views. Confidence and decisiveness are required to lead teams. On the other hand, a lack of perspective can lead to hubris, expert blindness, rigid thinking, and disengaged teams. Effective leaders need to balance the ability to know their own mind and to go out of their minds as the situation requires.

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