Learning To Think

We can all sympathize with the demands placed on people who occupy top leadership positions. It can be grueling 24 x 7 x 365 work requiring one’s total devotion to the job. In most cases, that means responding to one emergency after another. And they likely dealt with daily emergencies as they ascended the hierarchy. So, for perhaps 30 years, these people have learned to react to emergencies, and they do it remarkably well.

There is a problem: They have not been trained to think. Instead, they have been trained to react to problems as a result of chaotic batch-and-queue material and information processing. That is what they know best, and which has yielded both satisfaction and success. But as a trainer and teacher, I find, as others do, that it is difficult to teach senior managers how to think. Thirty years of continuous distraction has taken a toll on their ability to focus and concentrate, and desire to learn new things. They are strong at doing things yet weak at thinking.

If we want organizations to transform from conventional to Lean management, also known as the “thinking management system,” then we need leaders who can both think and do. Yet we are faced with an unusual challenge: Teaching leaders, mature adults who are great at reacting – and who enjoy reacting – how to think.

In the last 30 years, we have seen precious few leaders make the transformation from someone who is skilled at reacting to someone who is skilled at thinking. That tells us something. It seems the methods used by teachers, trainers, and consultants result in more failure than success, and, as a result, Lean remains a niche management practice despite its many advantages.

This outcome suggests we have to put more effort into teaching Lean management to young people. We must train them how to think and then apply their thinking skills as they climb organizational hierarchies. The goal is to teach future leaders to balance thinking and doing skills.

This is why I love my university job teaching undergraduate and graduate students. It is an opportunity to teach them how to think as a precursor to taking practical and effective action. As Henry Ford once said:

“Thinking is the hardest work any one can do – which is probably the reason why we have so few thinkers… the best that education can do for a man is to… teach him how to think.”

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