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Why Meaningful Improvement Requires a “Growth Mindset”

by Katrina Appell
February 21, 2019

Why Meaningful Improvement Requires a “Growth Mindset”

by Katrina Appell
February 21, 2019 | Comments (7)

Today is Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day.

February 21 is the day during Engineers Week, Feb. 18 to 23, 2019, devoted to showing girls what engineers do and giving them an opportunity to see themselves as engineers.

To mark it, we’re re-running a popular article by Katrina Appell, PhD, a coach with our Lean Product and Process Development initiative. She utilizes her engineering degrees to help big and small companies create sustainable systems for consistently delivering great products and profitable value streams.

In “Why Meaningful Improvement Requires a ‘Growth Mindset,’” which has garnered more than 3,100 views, she explores how the mindsets of leaders affect the bureaucracies they lead. A “fixed” mindset leads to a coercive bureaucracy that doesn’t use people’s skills and talents. A “growth” mindset that supports people’s ability to learn by overcoming obstacles leads to an enabling bureaucracy.

Read the article and share it with a girl or young woman! Then learn more about Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day.

Ever feel frustrated, constricted, or powerless to do the right thing?

This is what happens in your typical bureaucracy. A “bureaucracy” is supposed to be the most efficient and rational way to organize work, but the word rightly brings out thoughts of red tape and obstacles to navigate. These thoughts come as a result of experiences we’ve all had with what researcher Paul S. Adler calls coercive bureaucracies, which use rules, procedures, and structure to control people to ensure that the right things are done. On the flip side, an enabling bureaucracy uses rules, procedures, and structure to support people to get the right things done. Read more about the two different kinds of bureaucracies here.

It’s interesting stuff. And I’ve been thinking about how, as leaders, our mindset affects the bureaucracies we lead.

The image below is based on Carol S. Dweck’s work, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.


Image: Nigel Holmes / Graph Content: Carol Dweck

In her book, she explains that for those of us with a “fixed” mindset, we view ourselves as inherently smart and assume that as human beings, we can design and organize work effectively. Sounds good, right? Well, no. In effect, this leads to a coercive bureaucracy where we’re really not using the skills and talent of people throughout the entire organization. As a result we get an ineffective bureaucracy as the design doesn’t match the reality of the world we live in. With a fixed mindset, we think of intelligence as static, some of us are smart, others are not, so there isn’t even a need to coach and develop others.    

On the other hand, for those of us with a “growth” mindset, we have a desire to learn and design and organize work in a way that it can be adapted and adjusted as we learn. We understand that we learn through the very obstacles standing in our way. For this reason, we support our team members – the people who know the work best – to learn through the obstacles standing in their way. We employ a growth mindset in our personal development and support others to develop their own growth mindset. Since we believe intelligence can be developed, we coach and develop others. How could we not?

What does all of this have to do with meaningful improvement by way of lean thinking? If we want to create enabling bureaucracies (what a lean organization really is), we need to have growth mindsets with a willingness to learn. It isn’t surprising that mindset is in the foundation of the lean transformation model house. It is the foundational stability needed to enable us to meet our organizational objectives. Proceeding without this stability will have similar consequences as moving forward without the foundational stability in the Toyota Production System house.

The good news? You guessed it, a growth mindset can be learned. If you don’t believe you have one, your intelligence isn’t fixed! The first step is awareness.

Do you have a fixed or growth mindset?

If you have a fixed mindset:

Other helpful questions to ask yourself and your team members:

  • What kind of bureaucracy do you lead in?
  • What kind of bureaucracy do you want to lead in?
  • Do you want to change your mindset?

What Next?

  • Know a young woman who is interested in engineering? Get her a copy of LEI’s latest book, Designing the Future.
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7 Comments | Post a Comment
John Shook February 21, 2019
2 People AGREE with this comment

What a powerful message about an important topic, Katrina. I hope everyone who reads it will do as I will do this morning, which is to share it - with a girl or a boy or anyone. Surely, lean thinking is about nothing if not a "growth mindset" and if the term "bureaucracy" half of the term "enabling bureaucracy" term scares some people off, they can call it (as Eric Olsen does) "enabling structures". Thanks for writing.

Reply »

Katrina Appell February 21, 2019

John - Thank you for your comments and sharing it. 

I really like your comment on "bureaucracy." I'm going to start using structures or systems unless it is a situation where bureaucracy is important for context.  

Reply »

sid joynson February 22, 2019


I think the Sunao mind is another element that has been lost when lean was extracted from TPS. Latterly it has been identified as ‘Leading with respect,’ but it is much more than that. I first came across it in the writings of Konosuke Matsushita.  I do not understand why his philosophy is not more widely studied.  He captures the spirit that is at the heart of ‘The Toyota Way’ better than any book I have read on the subject.  ----

 “In these short essays I have touched on many qualities that I consider essential to good management. The one I introduce here is in my opinion the most important of all. It is what I call the ‘Sunao mind’. It is what enables all the other good qualities of the manager to express themselves fully.  One could say the Sunao mind is the untrapped mind, free to adapt itself effectively to new circumstances.”

 “A person with the Sunao mind looks at things as they at that moment and colours them with no special bias, emotionalism, or preconceptions.  A biased person sees everything through filters or a distorting lens. Business management, I have said, will always be successful if the manager acts in accordance with the laws of nature, listen to their employees, learns from their council, and puts their aggregate wisdom to daily use in running the enterprise.” Konosuke Matsushita.

The fluid mind is a central element of the martial arts.

"Don't get into one form, adapt it build your own, and let it be like water. Empty your mind; be formless, shapeless - like water. Now put water into a cup it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow and it can crash. Be water my friend."  Bruce Lee.

Some more of Konosuke's wisdom.

“We are going to win and the industrial West is going to lose. There is nothing you can do about it because the reasons for your failure are within yourselves. With your bosses doing the thinking while the workers wield the screwdrivers, you are convinced deep down that that is the way to run a business. For you, the essence of management is getting the ideas out of the heads of the bosses and into the hands of labour.


“The survival of firms today is so hazardous in an increasingly unpredictable environment that their continued existence depends on the day to day mobilisation of every ounce of intelligence. For us, the core of management is the art of mobilising and putting together the resources of all employees in the service of the firm. Because we have measured better than you the scope of new technological and economic challenges, we know that the intelligence of a handful of technocrats, however brilliant they may be, is no longer enough to take them up with any real chance of success. Only by drawing on the combined abilities of all its employees can a firm face up to tie turbulence and constraints of today’s environment.” Konosuke Matsushita.

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John Shook February 24, 2019

I couldn't agree more that "sunao mind" or attitude is hugely important and little discussed or understood! More than "respect for people" (or humanity), I think it resonates deeply with the idea that is often discussed nowadays (in English) as the spirit of "humility". Whatever English words we try, excellent idea to introduce the sunao mind concept to this discussion. 

Reply »

Katrina Appell February 24, 2019

Thank you for adding to the discussion. 

Reply »

Jim Morgan February 24, 2019

Excellent post Katrina!  Thank you for sharing your insights on the importance of humility and intellectually curiosity in both personal and organizational growth. 

Reply »

Katrina Appell February 24, 2019

Thanks Jim! 

Reply »

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