10,999,950 more reasons to think

Posted on 7 Apr 2010 by The Manufacturer

Jon Miller of Gemba Research on getting the naysayers on board...

Sooner or later everyone involved in leading change faces naysayers and passive resisters. With the power of their minds these people add friction to the PDCA improvement cycle, noise in the signal of root cause analysis, and turbulence to the laminar flow of creative ideas. One of the guiding principles of lean thinking exists specifically to overcome this drag. We ask people “instead of giving reasons why something can’t be done, think of how to make it possible”. If you are looking for another lean thinking principle to adopt, this is one that can make a giant difference.

When a scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.

These are the words of Arthur C. Clarke, the man who gave us the science fiction epic2001: A Space Odyssey, inspired the invention of the geostationary communications satellite, moved to Sri Lanka so he could spend more time scuba diving, and endowed an astronomical observatory there so he could gaze at the stars and think the impossible. Arthur CC was one cool dude.

Why can’t we flip the mental switch from “Not!” to “Why not?” There are two main reasons; people know why something can’t be done, or don’t know how it can be done. This is what Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard spoke of how we fool ourselves:

There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.

Knowing a false “why not” and willful “not knowing how” are both opposites of knowing that there is somehow a way, through perception and persistence. On the one hand there is simple ignorance. Charles Darwin said:

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge; it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

Yet many of the naysayers are leaders of one form or another and far from ignorant people. Shouldn’t people who learn more become more open-minded and likely to think it’s possible to solve our problems? What sets apart the ignorant scientists and thinkers from those knowledgeable yet confidence thinkers who succeed in solving problems? In a word, bias. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said:

The discovery of truth is prevented more effectively, not by the false appearance of things present and which mislead into error, not directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice.

Most of us are prejudiced. We can’t help but be. We perceive the world according to our mental models, as we wish it to be, not as it is. We want to see the world in ways that comfort us, protect our egos and our beliefs. Some of the more memorable benchmarking trips I have been on featured encounters with people to whom the tenets of lean manufacturing and Toyota’s leadership were unacceptable. They saw nothing but evidence to confirm their bias. The fast pace of work, the lack of safety glasses being worn and the piece of trash that lingers on the floor long enough between team leader standard work cycles for the odd tour group to see, all confirmation that the positive stories are some myth, or that high profits are due to protected markets. They might have been 100% right, I’m biased the other way. The opposite bias also exists, and biases in either direction limit our ability to learn.

Failure to become problem solvers, if due to inaction or resistance to action, then traced to ignorance born of overconfidence and bias, leaves us with the question of why we perceive with such bias. Studies reveal that our conscious minds process about 50 bits of information every second. This might seen like a lot, and it certainly adds up minute after minute, hour after hour. However when we consider that our senses receive 11 million bits per second of information, this is not so impressive. We ignore, filter out or process subconsciously the staggering majority of information we perceive. While it’s not yet fully understood how, it appears our minds follow the well-worn path of perceiving the reality we expect to see rather than in its remaining 10,999,950 bit of glory. American philosopher Paul Weiss said:

It’s one thing not to see the forest for the trees, but then to go on to deny the reality of the forest is a more serious matter.

In those 11 million bits per second there is an awful lot of potential for problem solving if we just acknowledge that our ignorance is vast and if we allow our mental models to mold around the bias of “how to make it possible.”

Jon Miller, Gemba Research and Gemba Panta Rei blog.