The following excerpt from Michael and Freddy Balle’s The Gold Mine shares a powerful insight experienced by the book’s protagonist: lean essentially taps known tools to find and frame the right problems, and then narrows them down to a level at which one can make the situation better by facing them.
“The experience of the plant had crystallized a real concern over my own work, which had been lurking in the dark recesses of my mind the past few weeks. My basic argument, in the book I was having such a hard time writing, was that our minds didn’t evolve to reason. They evolved to believe, which is a pretty neat trick. If I start running up a tree because I got fooled into believing there’s a predator behind the bush, and I turned out to be wrong, well, at most, I look stupid. Conversely, if I reason there couldn’t be a predator behind the bush, and I get it wrong, I get eaten. Evolution would favor belief over reason every time.
“Obviously, we do reason, but my take on this was that reasoning is actually a social skill, not necessarily an implicit human one. Science, for instance, is a great reasoning achievement, but it’s slow and painful, and in the end, not particularly rational, inasmuch as people get hung up on all sorts of crazy ideas and, at the end of the day, scientific thinking progresses one funeral at a time. But it’s also about people first, then practical, narrowly defined topics, and finally, constant research. People, gemba, kaizen.
“In the final analysis, here I was writing a book on all the instances of people not being rational, even within the scientific community. Why? Mostly because we’re individually too lazy to bother with rational procedure, such as define problems, explore alternatives, measure effects, test solutions, generalize success, challenge results, and so on. And yet increasingly, it appeared that what I thought to be an organizational system was in fact an individual learning system.
“The more I thought about what I’d learned from following the lean track, the less I was concerned with the mechanics of Kanban or leveling, but the more I was impressed with the amount of specific knowledge Amy and Phil had gained in such a short time. They’d learned to be rational, to systematically recognize problems, attack them through detailed observation, investigate options, and resolve them one after the other: precisely what I was saying we’re not supposed to be good at. At the end of the day, all they’d done was resolve one problem after the next, until the waste in the system was slowly rolled back. I’d not recognized the plant each time I returned there—but they didn’t share that experience at all. They felt nothing much was happening and it all took so long and that they met with endless resistance.
“The truth of the matter, I now believe, was that rationality did not lay in higher reasoning powers, in visionary schemes, but in the ability to narrow down problems until one reached the nitty-gritty level at which one could actually do something about them. The rest is philosophy. And indeed, I was reaching the conclusion that vision was a philosophical problem, but rationality was in the details. All in all, in my research in irrationality, maybe I had been studying the wrong field all along, which was a very scary thought.”