The Value of Thinking Like a Toddler

By on June 14, 2016
The Value of Thinking like a Toddler

Recall watching toddlers in action. Moving quickly across the floor, having just discovered the advantages of two-legged locomotion, they go from object to object evaluating what they see and touch and smell. Their evaluations are uncluttered by any preconceptions about the value of the objects they encounter, rather they are based solely on experimentation. Does the object feel good? Does it taste good? Does it smell good?

“All work is an experiment.” – Henry Ford

And as soon as toddlers can talk the most used word in their vocabulary is the word “why.” All of us who are parents have been driven to the edge of distraction by three-year-olds who ask us a question, hear our answer, and respond with “why.” And when we respond to that “why” they respond with another “why.” I recall a time when my son, Erich, confronted me with a barrage of “whys” and by the time we got to the fourth level of “why” I realized that the response I had given him to the first “why” didn’t make any sense.

“A relentless barrage of ‘why’s’ is the best way to prepare your mind to pierce the clouded veil of thinking caused by the status quo. Use it often.”
– Shigeo Shingo, Industrial Engineer, Toyota Motor Corporation

And what happens when toddlers are told, “No, you can’t.” All of us who have been parents know that toddlers immediately think, “We’ll see about that” and proceed to test our “No, you can’t.” Toddlers simply don’t buy at face value the notion of not being able to do something because, well, “we just don’t do that.” The toddler’s brain continually experiments, asking ‘why’ about everything, and pushing limits.

And this is exactly what Lean manufacturing is all about. Continually experimenting. Challenging the status quo with “whys.” Pushing limits. It’s these behaviors that have made Lean a force that is transforming the way work is done, a force that is driving very significant improvements in productivity, product quality, and profitability in a wide range of organizations worldwide.

And Lean is doing this by triggering in our brains those habits of thinking and acting that were alive and well when we were toddlers.

And, now, reader, I ask you to activate your “toddler” brain and imagine its reaction to these type of comments, comments that I’ve heard over and over again and, I suspect, so have you.

“Don’t worry about why we do this; just do what I tell you to do.”

“This is the way we’ve always done it.”

“We’ve tried your idea before and it just didn’t work.”

I strongly suspect that your toddler brain would have reacted in this way:

“I may do what you’re telling me to do, but I want to know why.”

“We may have always done it that way, but there might be a better way.”

“You may have tried it before but I want to try it my way myself.”

And that’s the power of toddler thinking. In Lean language it’s called “kaizen thinking.” Always experimenting. Always challenging the status quo with a barrage of “whys.” Always pushing limits.

That’s the power of Lean and that’s the beauty of Lean.

We have a wide variety of training and consulting services that will activate “toddler thinking” in your organization. I’d appreciate having the opportunity to review these Lean services with you. I think you’ll find this time very well spent. Call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let’s talk.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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