Lean Thinking and Extending the Mind

By Jon Miller Updated on January 12th, 2022

It’s well-known that the the particular method for combining manpower, materials, and machinery known as lean manufacturing matured at Toyota in the latter half of the 20th century. Many organizations, both industrial and not, have benefited by studying and understanding the Toyota Production System as a set of general principles. It’s also well understood that it’s more appropriate to read the letters TPS as the Thinking People System.

In a great blog post Kevin Meyer reviewed and summarized the main insights of the book The Extended Mind by Annie Paul. Reading it over the holidays, I found some interesting parallels between the author’s nine principles for extending the mind and lean practices that we apply to process improvement.

How Extending the Mind Is Like a SMED Kaizen Event

The first principle is “offload information whenever possible.” The goal is to reduce the clutter in our mind, also known as cognitive load. We can avoid dealing with something in the moment but have it available as a reference later…we don’t need to remember it. This reminds me of the idea of external setup in the SMED system. When we must follow a complex set of steps to switch from job A to job B on a machine, it can take hours and be fraught with errors, if we try to do everything when the pressure is on and the downtime clock is running. By moving whatever tasks we can into a preparation and post-changeover stage, we can concentrate on doing a safe, fast, and accurate setup. This approach is used in healthcare, auto racing, hospitality, as well as industrial settings. We can also think better by externalizing those things that don’t require immediate reference or consideration.

The second principle is to  “transform information into artifact.” Basically, it means we should turn data into something real that we can interact with. This is encouraged in the lean startup approach, as build-measure-learn. Lean thinkers rely on various mock-ups for their try-storming, most notably in the production preparation process (3P). Science classrooms are full of props to demonstrate ideas in physics, chemistry or biology, allowing students to interact with ideas as concrete objects. Continuing the SMED example, this may be something like using a physical artifact such as a gage or block to get the same accurate positioning every time, rather than relying on our knowledge and skill to make an adjustment. What often-used information can I turn into artifacts? I’m not sure but intrigued by the notion.

In the third principle the author encourages us to “alter your mental state” by changing location, social surroundings, or by moving our bodies. Unlike computers, we don’t process the same information in the same way every single time. Our thinking evolves as we learn, but also our physical states may be more or less alert. Since our thinking is naturally variable, we need to experiment with altering our mental states to find the settings and conditions that work well for each of us. If the state we’re in isn’t helping us to process info or solve a problem, we need to change the state.

The idea of Edward De Bono’s six thinking hats comes to mind. Kaizen event teams use cross-functional teams from diverse backgrounds to help people shift their mental states out of “we’ve always done it this way” and “we’ve tried but it won’t work.” Often, novices and outsiders ask fresh, even naive questions that give us a new perspective. The physical movement during a gemba walk also provides a change of scenery, physical, and mental states. In day-to-day terms, this can be as simple as remembering to get up and walk around every hour or two.

The Three “Re-” Principles

The second set of three principles builds on the idea of shifting our mental state. The fourth is to “re-embody the information we think about” through body movements, being aware of our “gut feels” or interoceptive signals. At the same time the author seems to suggest that if we are thinking about how to speed something up, we should try running. If we are striving for a goal, we should physically reach for things. If we need breakthroughs, perhaps take a sledgehammer to some old sheet rock. These ideas are attractive but the evidence feels anecdotal. But that’s a gut feel. In lean thinking terms, creating a physical pull signal, moving the patient, paperwork or product in a flow, or having an actual red flag that we raise to alert leaders to a problem may all be examples of re-embodying the idea.

The fifth principle is to “re-spatialize the information.” Humans process and store information in the form of mental maps. So it makes sense to draw a map so that we can both externalize it, create an artifact, change our mental states moving, and re-embodying a map in our mind through the act of drawing lines on paper. A penny should drop at this point for many lean thinkers. Mapping is a huge part of what we do, and it turns out that neuroscientists also recommend this. The use of A3 documents or large storyboards in Toyota Kata, TQM, or TPM not only helps teams follow a problem-solving structure and visually communicate their work, it may actually help our minds find a path by seeing the information as a map through unknown territory. I tend to rely on the written word, virtual document outlines, and the in-skull thought. When might this re-spatialize principle be worth trying?

The six principle is to “re-socialize the information” is based on research that shows humans process the same information in ways that are very different and often more effective when other humans are involved. This can be discussion, debate, or exchange of information. This seems like commonsense, but it’s good to know that it’s backed by research. Certainly as many of us work in remote or virtual offices, the timely and deliberate exchange of information and gut feels becomes more important.

Feedback Loops and Stable Environments

It seems like the last three principles should come first. They are about building a foundation of stability. Principle seven is to “manage thinking by generating cognitive loops.” This means taking the set of factors above that connect information, mind, body, artifacts, environment social input, back to mind, and arrange them as feedback loops. The lean thinking analogue may be standardized work. After connecting processes and verifying that they flow, we still need to specify timing, sequence, outcome, and the change points that we must monitor and control. At first blush, it seems like a lot of work. Thinking a thought is so much faster than thinking about how best to think a thought. And for how many types of thinking does this type of standardized work, or cognitive loop, really work? While there are three types of standardized work, they are mostly for repetitive and repeatable processes. However, this wouldn’t be the first time someone has said, “standard work doesn’t apply to us” only to learn otherwise later.

The eighth principle is a looser, more practical, and accessible version of the previous one. The author suggests we “create cognitively congenital situations. She says rather than ordering our brain to think, we need to create the conditions that make it easy to think. In other words, don’t dictate how to do the thinking, but put the thinker in situations where they can succeed at it. This idea of empowering people who do the work, or giving teams autonomy to set and achieve objectives, is a foundation stone of lean management. It seems to be a combination of teaching people how to think, rather than what to think, and creating an environment where thinking is encouraged. Easier to do for others than for ourselves, perhaps. But it should be possible if we have done our homework for the first five or six principles.

The ninth and final principle is to “embed extensions into our everyday environments.” The use of “everyday” in the sense of normal, routine, or daily is a familiar one for lean management. In other words, extended thinking should not be a project, event, or special technique that we use sometimes. It should be the default way for better thinking in all aspects of our lives.

Taking Individual Responsibility for Better Thinking

Today, the most forward-looking and successful organizations invest in developing their people. Leaders increasingly recognize this as both their responsibility and unique competitive advantage. This is great, but what reading this book made me realize is that leaders need to ask each individual to take responsibility for extending their mind. This might seem intrusive. Our mind, after all, is the most private and personal part of us. “How I think is none of your business.” But many employers already build systems that encourage people to take individual responsibility for their financial planning (401k), physical health (wellness plans) and skill advancement (tuition reimbursement). It doesn’t seem too far off to do the same for extending our minds. One might even say it’s a must, if we are striving for a Thinking People System.

All-time great thinker Albert Einstein is credited as saying,“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” In other words, whether in our own lives or the wider world, if we want to solve our problems, we need to elevate and expand our thinking beyond the thinking that got us into them in the first place. We can start simple. This could be walking around drawing a mind map of these principles. How do these apply to me? Show it to friends or family, and explain what you hope to gain by expanded thinking. Embed this visual artifact into your space, as a reminder.

  1. Nic Morin

    March 2, 2022 - 1:26 pm

    As a student currently undertaking a green belt project I have come to see the importance of learning how to think and creating new ways of looking at the issue at hand. Ones first reaction may be to attack a problem with the same approach that caused the issue. With this method one will run into the same issues they already caused. By taking a Kaizen like approach to our own thinking we can incorporate the ideals of continuous improvement not just to whatever system we want to improve but to our own though process and the way we process data needed to solve a problem. One quotation that resonated with me as I work through my own Lean Six Sigma Project was “…rather than ordering our brain to think, we need to create the conditions that make it easy to think.” This highlights the importance in using the data we collect to create meaningful connections, maps and charts that make data easy to interpret and utilize. By transforming said data new problems and potential causes that were never seen before can be made clear. Throughout my project I will ensure that as we progress and attempt to improve our system we will also be mindful and improve our own mental processes making it possible to find improvement in places that are not immediately apparent.

    • Jon Miller

      March 2, 2022 - 1:36 pm

      Thanks for your comment Nic. Good general life rule; help your brain and your brain will help you.

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