Monday, August 15, 2011

What are Mental Models?

By Al Norval,

I hear this question all the time and thought it would be a good time to write about it.

Simply put, Mental models are our assumptions about how the world works based on experience, upbringing & temperament. They are the lenses or filters we use in our glasses when we “see” the world but often they distort reality. For example – I’m sitting in a cafĂ© with a friend, drinking a cappuccino and chatting. We stop and look at the crowd. We perceive different things even though we both saw the same faces in the crowd. Everyone sees the world differently since we all have a different set of lenses. These mental models help to shape our behaviour.

What does this mean in the Lean transformation of an organization?

When we go to Gemba we know we’re supposed to:

- Go See

- Ask Why

- Show Respect

But how can we “Go see” if we’re still using the old conventional mental models. We need to “See” at Gemba using the Lean Mental Models which will cause us to view things differently from before and enable us to truly see the depth of waste we have in our processes. Our role as Leaders is then to teach others to “see” in the same way and to problem solve to eliminate waste and improve value for our Customers. As we adopt the Lean Mental Models, our behaviour changes and become more consistent with Lean Thinking.

In a Lean transformation, we need to learn and master the Lean Mental Models and use them to “see” the organization differently.

There are twelve Lean Mental Models of which I‘m highlighting six below:

- Leader as a Teacher

- Go see for yourself

- Standards for all important things

- Don’t ship junk

- Problems are gold – treasure them

- Everyone solves problems using simple methods

I challenge you to compare these to the conventional way of thinking in an organization. Are problems treated as gold? Do Leaders act as teachers? Are defects passed on through the organization in the hope they will be caught in final inspection? Do only experts solve problems while everyone else sits around and watches?

Think about where your organization is in its Lean journey. How well has the organization learned the new Lean Mental Models?

Like any new skill, we can’t master the use of the Lean Mental Models overnight just as we can’t break any habit we’ve grown up with overnight. To master the Lean Mental Models, we need to practice using them. We need to hold each other accountable when we don’t follow them. We need to teach them to the rest of the organization. Over time, with practice our skill level improves.

To accelerate learning, practicing and mastering the use of the Lean Mental Models, we’ve developed the Lean Mental Model app for Blackberry and iPhone's which contrasts twelve Conventional and Lean Mental Models. These use the same popular images as the Lean Brain Booster pocket card series.

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