What does it mean when a sensei challenges kaizen team members to think like a 9-year old? Sensei is asking them to do something that is very difficult. That is, to approach the work and the problems in ways that a 9-year old child would — free of preconceptions. What is a preconception? It is “a preconceived opinion or idea formed prior to experience and in the absence of reasoning.”
You may ask, which preconception(s) should we free ourselves from? The answer is any preconception that has you look at your work or your problem in the same way. The challenge that senseis give is to look at the work or the problem in totally fresh new ways so that it can be significantly improved. To do that, we must quickly become very curious and imaginative as a 9 year-old would.
Few people do that. Instead most people think they understand the work or quickly believe they have correctly grasped a problem. In the latter case, they reflexively reach for a tool to help solve the problem.
In addition to having become an unhealthy obsession, so-called “Lean tools” have also become a preconception — you need a tool to understand the work (e.g., value stream map) or solve a problem (e.g., A3 Report). If you think like a 9-year old child, you would not reflexively reach for a tool to solve a problem. Being very curious, you would want to learn more about the problem to improve your grasp of the problem. You would then try to solve the problem. You would first use the trial-and-error method. If eventually unsuccessful, perhaps then you would think about creating a new tool or find an existing tool to help solve the problem.
But instead, people quickly jump to a tool, of which there are so many to choose from, all nicely categorized and explained on the corporate website. There is almost no need to think; just pick a tool that seems like it will help, use it, and hope it gets the job done. Lean tools are most often used in ways that do not significantly change the work or solve a problem in an creative or innovative way. In this regard, Lean tools severely limit people’s thinking.
The absence of a challenge to bring human curiosity, creativity, and innovation to the surface is not “developing people.” It is restraining or hindering people; it is preventing their growth and their ability to contribute more substantively to progress. Using Lean tools without the challenge of applying human curiosity, creativity, and innovation makes it difficult for people to develop. It merely exercises the problem-solving skills that they already have, typically in a rote fashion.
Consistent with tradition, the focus continues to be on Lean tools: how to use them, how to use them better, tool variations, tool conglomerations, new tools, etc. The unceasing fascination with Lean tools has come to resemble, and may even correspond to, a child’s fascination with toys. People’s deep affection for tools has no limit. It is an artifact of our evolutionary development, one that has surely contributed greatly to the survival of our species, but nonetheless has recognizable limits.
The tradition of reaching for a tool is comforting and widely understood to be the “normal condition,” not an “abnormal condition.” Lean tools prevent people from thinking like a 9 year-old. That is abnormal. We should instead view the “normal condition” as thinking like a 9-year old child. If we can do that — if we can improve our ability to think — then we will contribute more to the process of change (evolution) in thinking and practice that is necessary for keeping up with the times.