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Uncovering Lean’s Soul

by Dr. John R. Ehrenfeld
July 18, 2017

Uncovering Lean’s Soul

by Dr. John R. Ehrenfeld
July 18, 2017 | Comments (1)

Despite thousands upon thousands of pages examining lean practices, its real secret has yet to be exposed fully. We have many hints available: Lean as a different way of thinking is the most relevant. People who are skillful at lean think differently, not just better, than the rest of us. But, at least for me, what was different was elusive until recently.

Lean is more than just thinking differently, which it is. It is more radical than that. Lean is being differently.

Lean actors connect themselves to the systems at hand. They become a part of it. They care for problematic situations as they would for a member of their family. That’s why trying to apply lean piece-meal to a single isolated problem generally fails to produce the desired results. One big issue in incorporating lean into an enterprise is that modern cultures tend to reject this holistic framework as the normal way to attack problems. Problems can be dissolved and made to vanish only through an understanding of the whole system as if the actor/observer were part of and related to it

The thinking model of Iain McGilchrist has made these ideas clearer to me. McGilchrist’s 2009 book, The Master and his Emissary, available in paperback in 2012, is an awesome exposé about the brain, arguing that the two hemispheres that constitute the bulk of the brain apprehend the world very differently.

The way we construct our own working worlds depends on which one is in charge. Models separating the brain’s functions into the left and right hemispheres have been around for some time.

The idea became popular through the work of Roger Sperry and his colleagues, starting in the 1960’s. McGilchrist has extended and clarified this early work in this book.

At the risk of excessive simplification, the right brain captures the immediate world outside the body in its contextual, organic richness. It presents that world to the brain as if there were a conscious person located there waiting to act on the incoming message. (My metaphor, not his) It captures the present moment in terms of the temporal sense of the succession of signals that are constantly produced by the senses. It creates such an important mode of existence that Martin Heidegger turned the noun into the verb, to presence, that is to capture the moment just as it is, largely unfiltered by presuppositions dredged up from past experience. 

Conversely, the left hemisphere re-presents the world outside as a montage of pieces abstracted from the past (presuppositions). The fullness of the immediate world is hidden from the thinking/acting individual by those filters that re-create what the brain thinks the immediate world should be, not what it is at the moment.

What shows up is static, dead, and instrumental in nature. It carries a familiarity that suggests what should be done about it.

The book is dense and takes hard work to slog through. I am still at it, but have been collecting key descriptive phrases McGilchrist attributes to each side. Here is my list based mostly on his choice of words, but with some additions of my own making.

Left HemisphereRight Hemisphere
Already knownNew, incoming
CategoriesIndividual (real) people and things
Divided into partsWhole, organic, gestalt
Grasping, predictabilityExploring, possibility

In Heidegger’s words, again, whatever actions follow from left hemisphere thinking are inauthentic, arising out of conformity to the past and whatever commands were assigned to the constructed situation. The right brain leads to authentic behaviors, arising anew from the living presence in view. The left views the world as mechanistic; the right as complex. 

Does any of this sound familiar to Lean thinkers?

I believe this model helps explain why Lean works, and why, in so many cases, it doesn’t.

Lean is fundamentally a learning practice, seeking to reveal less than perfect relationships in a system of action, beginning with manufacturing, but expanding to other areas, like investment or strategy in general. Learning begins by understanding the immediate present to the fullest extent possible (Lean’s core practice of grasping the situation), followed by tweaking the system based on that understanding, to nudge it toward perfection. This form of learning is a right-brain process.

Our modern world of science and technology is a left-brain world. The fundamental models to explain it are mechanistic, analytic, and reductionistic. We modern human beings exist there almost to the exclusion of the right-brain, living world.

This helps explain why we tend to treat “others” as commodities, reducing them to a bundle of left-brain abstractions. It helps explain why we encounter so many negative unintended outcomes even as we try to refine our technological and technocratic systems.

Think for a minute why one of the most common lean tools, asking the 5 whys, works so well. It basically forces the practitioner to move out of the familiar left-brain mode to the right brain processes that can expose the situation without the presuppositions that are always present whenever our left-brains start working. As Michael Balle writes, “it’s a practice to develop deep, narrow-specific knowledge and makes little sense if divorced from the actual technical process it’s being applied to.”

The connection between lean and the right-left hemisphere model of the brain presenced (sic) itself while I was working on the manuscript for my new book on flourishing. It won’t be out for some months, but you can see some of the ideas on my blog. I see flourishing as the goal of individual and social life in the same way lean sees perfection as its objective.

Flourishing is the fulfillment of genetic potential for all life and, for humans, the additional experience of living every moment fully connected to the world. It is a life of relationship, connectedness, love, wonder, awe, care, mystery, and so on.

It exists, as I have discovered, only in a right-hemisphere culture. Ours, like all modern societies, has become a predominately left-brain culture that has produced the myriad of civilizing technologies and ideas that we treasure, but is keeping flourishing largely under wraps. To make flourishing the normal way of being will take a cultural situated re-balancing of the two spheres.

To make lean thinking the normal practice in an organization will take the same kind of rebalancing.

Both are exceedingly difficult hard to do when societal norms strongly support left-brain thinking and action. Organizations that are serious about lean can start to move in that direction by first, acknowledging that lean thinking is a right-hemisphere activity, and then, by employing practices that induce and embed it. The example above of the 5 whys works because it forces the players to see the whole, not the parts.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  musings,  problem solving
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Mike Rother July 19, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this comment

To paraphrase a colleague: Although Gilchrist's book has been praised and well received, we cannot yet make definitive claims about what exactly goes on inside the brain. Until we see those neurons at work close up — which may be coming — we should remain skeptical about interpretations of the meaning of brain activity. Gilchrist's research offers new information about hemispheres, but be careful about the inferences we draw.

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