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Combat the Ninth Waste of Overthinking

by Dan Prock
May 25, 2021

Combat the Ninth Waste of Overthinking

by Dan Prock
May 25, 2021 | Comments (6)

Taichi Ohno identified seven forms of waste, and lean insiders often add an eighth: the waste of human resources. At the risk of being guilty of it myself, in this post, I will propose a ninth: the waste of overthinking.

Rationality plays a starring role in our Western culture. Its roots, tracking back to Socrates and the Greeks, were refreshed during the Renaissance, and brought to flower by science. And indeed, reason is required in both our work and personal lives. However, can there be too much of a good thing?

Most of us grew up raising our hands in class and being rewarded by our teachers for thinking more, not less. Later, most leaders in the corporate meritocracy were shaped by role models from a business culture glorifying “brilliant” executives -- Jack Welch in the 1990s or Elon Musk today. As a result, we mistakenly attribute their success to thinking alone. We are conditioned to overthink and as a result it feels good and becomes a habit.

I’ve often been guilty of overthinking, seeking too much information, applying models, and as a result, getting stuck in abstraction. For example, I once led a needs assessment in a machinery company that used different software and legacy systems at each of half a dozen sites worldwide. The CEO asked me to help his site leaders draft a strategy to upgrade and integrate worldwide engineering systems. To identify problems and opportunities, I developed a survey and deployed a team to interview scores of engineers. Next, I sorted the data into site-specific lists of technical issues and ideas for improvement. Still, I became stuck when I considered facilitating an executive discussion across six lists and concluding a two-day meeting with a unique action plan for each site. Some sites used software and legacy data bases that others didn’t, and there were no metrics to quantify and compare the effectiveness of any of them.

The data wasn’t apples to apples; it was a fruit salad!

Avoid the waste of overthinking by making mindfulness your default state.Fortunately I stumbled onto a useful way to unlock my mental logjam. I asked one of my peers to be a sounding board and he didn’t overthink it. He said, “just give each site leader his own data in advance and tell them to vie for a company strategy that best serves his engineers. With a bit of facilitation and the CEO’s final priorities and limits, it will all come out in the wash.” It did -- strategy set. Workshop a success. I had been guilty of the ninth waste.

Who hasn’t become stuck in overthinking in response to a critique from a boss, a slight by a friend, or a bad investment? The internal dialogue of “coulda woulda shoulda” is one we all know well. In fact, researcher Jordan Poppenk quantified the velocity of individuals’ thoughts in experiments where he measured the duration of each one, He found that his subjects averaged 6,200 thoughts per day -- one every 10 seconds or so. When we let excessive thinking become a habit, we often spin down the drain into the sewer of  the ninth waste. What can you do to reduce overthinking? Here are a few tips.

  • Understand that your thinking is a tool, and never believe that it is the “truth.”
  • Understand that your mind has numerous innate biases.
  • Go and see actual problem situations rather than trying to understand them from a distance.
  • Use a practical, action-oriented peer as a sounding board.
  • When you find yourself lost in a cogitating loop, ask: “What’s the problem I’m trying to solve?”
  • Don’t think in haste unless life or limb is at risk.
  • Consider your thoughts as mere hypotheses and test them in a dry run or experiment.
  • Make mindfulness your default state of mind.

An effective lean practice would make mindfulness the default state, and thus reduce excess thinking. Then lean leaders and coaches would laser focus on identifying solutions (or counter-measures), developing people's capabilities better, and being a more effective catalyst for rapid lean implementation.

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Jeff Fuchs May 27, 2021
2 People AGREE with this comment

A provocative post, Dan!

A number of lean practitioners and authors have proposed new wastes, adding to Ohno's seven, and the later eighth. Most new 'discoveries' on the "periodic table of wastes" fail to pass muster, and end up on the failed theory heap alongside Cold Fusion.

Your suggestion appears sound. I regret the timing: I know I will lose myself thinking about your idea, not paying attention to properly grilling Memorial Day burgers.

I will probably focus most closely on whether Overthinking is a variant of Excess Processing. Each overprocessing instance has its unique causes. Could it not be that overconfidence in our mental models, not detecting our biases, failure to go and see, and the other advice you list in your tips, are all causes of overthinking, which is a thought-domain variant of the broader waste of overprocessing? 

Thanks for giving us all an excellent idea to think about! I look forward to thoughts from you and others.

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Dan Prock May 28, 2021

Don't over cook the burgers either!

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Dennis Palmqvist June 02, 2021

just as you say we all find ourselves sometimes in that mental loop trying to solve obstacles imagining and measuring all kind of scenarios in our minds. Trying to come up with the best possible solution. When we rather should just settle with a solution that might not be the best. But its durable enough and would suit the needs and will definitively save us time.

I would suggest that overthinking goes under overprocessing. Cause thinking is part of a process and if you think more then what the customer actually require then you are overprocessing.

Thank you for a enjoyable article!

Reply »

Dan Prock June 07, 2021

I agree it's over processing, but that's usually thought of by most people in production terms, not personal and mental ones, so this highlights and expands the definition. thanks for your comment.

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Dan Prock June 07, 2021

It could also be categorized as a waste of human resources as everyone's capacity to be mindful and focus is limited.

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Stephen Wilkinson June 24, 2021

IS your #9 "over thinking" is just an example of #7 - "Over Processing"?

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