When we say “Continuous Improvements” we also mean “Small Improvements”. Keeping it SMALL is key to innovate BIG. Because, as I am just learning, we have 3 brains. Really!

Here’s some neuro-scientific basics every manager could use when it comes to leading human beings.

Amygdala - (c) iStock/janulla
Amygdala – (c) iStock/janulla

In 2004 Robert Maurer (Ph.D.) wrote an impressive, small book “One Small Step Can Change Your Life – The Kaizen Way“.

He describes how he has applied Kaizen (the principles of continuous improvement) to the treatment of his patients as a therapist – and why we need to know Amygdala (the red dot in the picture above).

My KEY TAKE-AWAYS from reading his book:

1) We have 3 Brains. Lizard, Dog, Human.

Over time the human brain developed in roughly 3 stages.

First, the reptile brain, that would help control body temperatures, guide us to get up and go to sleep, but wouldn’t prevent the croc to eat its young ones, once they hatched.

Another 200 million years later came the mammal brain, that allowed the dog to live in a tribe, be loyal, care for our young ones, have relationships.

Add roughly another 200 million years to end up with the human brain – the Neocortex. A complex structure and the home of creative capabilities that allow us to learn, speak and develop language, make plans for the future, write poems.

3 Brains - by James Thornton
3 Brains – by James Thornton

I got this picture from a great 3-page article by James Thornton. I highly recommend reading it, if you want to get into this just a bit further: Humans have three brains. It’s certainly scientifically more sound than what I just wrote above, and at least just as entertaining.

2) Keep Amygdala asleep. Avoid Lions.

It’s this third brain that makes us as human as we are – and it’s that part of the brain that we want to tap into when we’re back to business with the ambition to use everyone’s full potential to develop into a high-performing organization.

The Amygdala (the red dot in the blue brain picture above) is our “fear center”. It interprets stimuli, for example a Lion jumping from behind a bush, and triggers us to run for our life.

Simply put, to be most efficient, it shuts down the parts of the brain not needed to flee: the human brain. You don’t really need to be developing your language or write a poem, while your running for your life.

That’s pretty clever.

Roaring Lion - (c) edan/123rf.com
Roaring Lion – original picture (c) edan/123rf.com

And it’s pretty stupid to wake up the Amygdala of your colleagues when you want them to be creative, open, dare to experiment.

But how often do we do that in a business context?

You ask your team to come up with the next disruptive business model. You offer a promising young graduate to hold the key note at the next management event. You ask for a next business idea, that will create 30 million $ in the first year. You want to see a bold, big-bang move to enter the market. … I’ve been there (on both sides: sending and receiving).

Well, according to Robert Maurer, there are very few human beings that will actually thrive when confronted with such a challenge (It reminds me of the crazy Pamplona bull runs).

Most normal human beings will just simply shut down their Neocortex – and with it all their creative and intellectual powers. You just scared them with a lion, and that woke up their Amygdala.

So, we need to assure a key condition in the work environment: keep the Amygdala asleep!

3) Ask small questions.

Robert Maurer describes a very hands-on experiment. He asks his colleague at work about the color of the car, that is parked next to hers – every day. After 4-5 days she – or that is her brain! – can’t refuse to deal with this small question. And she knows the color, even without looking for it consciously.

A simple example of how to program your brain with questions.

According to Robert Maurer ordering her to tell him the color, won’t have the same effect. The key is to ask questions. Combined with the knowledge about the Amygdala – the key is to ask SMALL questions.

This is not contradictory to having BIG goals, like changing your lifestyle radically from a TV-bum to a regular sports athlete, or escaping your old business model into a totally new value chain structure, or changing your organization from a super-hierarchical one into an open, value stream-oriented one.

To engage a person to contribute with all their wits and creativity, he recommends to ask questions like: “What could be your next, small step towards… a healthier life style, or towards liberating us from the business model we are stuck in?” Repeatedly.


Continuous Improvement… Sweet, isn’t it?

It has a nagging quality to it. Like asking for the color of the car.

Sudoku - (c) Andrea Tammaschke/123rf.com
Sudoku – (c) Andrea Tammaschke/123rf.com

The human brain can’t avoid to start finding solutions to it. Human beings love small challenges.

He illustrates that by pointing out that your fellow passengers on an airplane are solving sudokus, cross-word puzzles, playing guessing games, etc.

Putting the pieces together.

I couldn’t wait to write this post, as understanding the Amygdala and to ask small questions, was such an impressive insight. Also it is well in line with my thinking and beliefs in my post about Lean Leadership. How to Foster Fruit Farmers.

I was hesitant to write this post, because the Neuro-Sciences are a huge, and unchartered territory to me. I am fearing to find out that I didn’t even understand the most basic.

But, like I learned, tt’s one of my small steps forward towards understanding and developing teams and organizations to use their full potential. I will certainly be a lot more aware to ask small questions.

PS: I still have got to figure out how this fits together with Timeboxing. Get in Survival Mode.