Mental Models: Standardized Work and Performance Measures


A few thoughts while waiting for a Sunday flight… at least it's a Sunday flight towards home.

One reason traditional organizations (and traditional leaders) struggle with Lean is because the mental models are different. The problem isn't understanding tools; the problem occurs when people are forcing Lean methods into a traditional setting. What might work great in a Lean culture, might cause nothing but trouble in a traditional setting – all because of the mental models. When we implement a new method from another organization, we might do well to ask  “What existing mental models is this going to conflict with? What might the side effects be?”

A had a great chat with Pascal Dennis recently (check out my recent podcast with him) about mental models. His consulting group sells these cute “mental models” cards that illustrate some comparisons between traditional thinking and lean thinking mental models. One of those cards is pictured above.

Two topics that often raise ire related to Lean are standardized work and performance measures.

Traditional organizations love to control people (or feel like they have to) while Lean organizations believe their employees have intrinsic motivation and they deserve to be respected and engaged in improvement as responsible adults.

So when a traditional command-and-control organization hears of standardized work, they often leap to the idea that Pascal expressed, that too many organizations unfortunately think standardized work is just another way to control people. That's wrong, that's not Lean. If you don't change your mental models, the “boss” will yell at people for not following the standardized process while a Lean manager seeks to understand the situation – asking why the person isn't following the process (the process has changed, there was a good reason to not follow it in a certain case, or the person wasn't trained properly, perhaps).

We have to shift from management = policing and being the boss to management = being a collaborative coach and leader.

Traditionally, performance measurements are used to rank people (pitting them against each other), to blame, or to punish.

So when a Lean consultant says an organization should measure the process more frequently, traditional managers think they are just blaming, ranking, and finding fault with people hourly instead of monthly. This is not progress.

As I tweeted earlier:

“Metrics and measures are the voice of the process, to be used for improvement, not for blame, ranking, and punishment.”

This is a different mental model. You don't measure a physician's infection rates so you can fire those with the worst rates. That sort of punishment and blame forces problems underground. We don't just need “transparency,” we also need to work on improving systems and processes instead of blaming individuals.

Right tool, wrong mental model = disaster and grumpy people (and poor quality).

Your thoughts?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Great Post! Still struggling with the paradigm of traditional organizations. A key point is to have a good Road Map for culture change. Have you ever experienced a culture change initiative (through a Lean Journey) in a business environment? Thx. s.

  2. Lots to think about there. Probably a book’s worth of material that could come out of this post.

    90% of Lean is getting the Mental Models and the 4 Rules from theory into practice. Maybe 100%.

  3. As with so many management concepts the way ideas are implemented is critical. Standardized work is hugely beneficial. The obvious concept is control. But continual improvement is key and known by everyone that does standardized work correctly. Those that think it is about control are often, as you mention, stuck in the old mindset of control. Same with measures. If they are used to re-enforce fear and ranking and competition they re-enforce bad practices. When used to improve the process and measure system results they are powerful tools for improvement.

  4. Great post.

    I find these differences in mental models sometimes make it impossible to even start having a reasonable conversation about lean and empowering your workers to think for themselves.


  5. To steal and modify from Yogi, “Lean is 90% mental and the other half is tools.”

    The mental models are so important. One of the easiest ones to highlight is the andon system. A lean organization comes to the area and asks “What is the problem? How can I help?” where a traditional mental model is to get upset for stopping the line. Same tool, two different mental models.

    This can make things more difficult. Most of the time you need the new tool or concept in place in order to help demonstrate an new mental model. At first a traditional mental model will try to twist the new tool/concept, because it will take patience and repetition to break through. Once you do though, it is very rewarding.

  6. I run into this constantly in Alaska. Businesses in distress hire lots of consultants to tell them what to do, not to learn how to do for themselves. Only one business I am familiar with has hired a lean consultant and is on the way to a true lean conversion.In all of the others, employees are told by management to implement what the consultants told them to do. No thinking or learning involved. In a Lean conversion, we do have to change our management thinking-this new mental model-and teach our employees how to manage their part of the workplace as a team by thinking with the assistance of the tools. It was a tough lesson for me to learn, but I am reaping the benefit.

  7. Good post Mark,

    I highly recommend Laurence Gonzales book Deep Survival for a great description of mental models. An excerpt from his follow up book, Everyday Survival:

    “Without a mechanism for reframing our behavior or redefining our group, the effects are ignored, as they were at NASA, until a catastrophe happens.

    As the investigating board put it, both Columbia and Challenger were lost also because of the failure of NASA’s organizational system: both actions were failures of foresight in which history played a prominent role.

    So influential board NASA’s models and scripts, and so delusional self-confidence bred group is, that even after Columbia broke up, killing all on board, the space program manager told the press that he was comfortable with his previous assessments of risk and didn’t think the foam debris could cause the accident. But remember that a key feature of this system is that, taken one small step at a time, each decision always seems correct.

    In a culture that evolved at NASA, each returned from a successful mission was another moon landing. Applause that was by the time of Columbia, more than 30 years old. So instead of appearing more deeply into the problem, they gradually revised their models until they were literally interpreting failure as success. The final report of the commission said:

    Engineers and managers Inc. worsening anomalies into the engineering experience base, which functioned as an elastic waistband, expanding the hold larger deviations from the original design. Anomalies that did not lead to catastrophic failures were treated as a source of valid engineering data to justify further flights.”

    The reason an airplane can get landed on the Hudson was because the correct Mental Models were in place to handle the situation. The pilot did not get “lost”. If the entire crew did not innovate from a standard work platform mass confusion would have taken place.

    I think these examples(good and bad) make it obvious why you must not only have a systematic process (standard work) in place for continuous improvement but also outside eyes observing your practices mindful not to leave your organization slip into doing; STUPID THINGS!

  8. Important post.
    I think we can make even finer distinctions. Why do managers yell at people for not following a standard process or not meeting a target? Sure, there are organizational mental models, but there are also individual mental models–or narratives (Howard Gardner) or big untested assumptions (Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey). I like using the Enneagram to make these finer distinctions. It points out nine distinct reasons a manager might behave in a certain way, as well as a developmental path forward. For example, they might believe there is one right way to do things…or be spinning negative scenarios of what would happen if they used inquiry…or power through others to avoid feeling and looking vulnerable. From a coaching perspective, once someone begins to observe why and how they are getting angry rather than engaging in root cause analysis, they have a more specific and practical path forward toward the types of constructive mental models on those cards. In contrast, if we treat all managers the same by saying they have an outdated command-and-control mental model without asking why, we miss an opportunity to fine tune our intervention.

  9. Amiel – great point. I surely oversimplified things. Even with managers we might deem as “bad” (a gross oversimplification), we should probe and ask why. What are the root causes of their behavior? Why do they think that is the right approach?

    I don’t know, though, what an Enneagram is. I could google it, but any key points we should know?

  10. Mark,

    I think of the Enneagram as a system for understanding a person’s core motivations, blind spots, and triggers–in essence, what makes them tick. The consultant who has popularized its business use is Ginger Lapid-Bogda. She’s trained hundreds of managers at Genentech (and elsewhere).

    The name is strange; if you only read a one-page description, it may look simplistic; and it can be “deep.” But it is remarkably rich and practical, and I’ve found it to be robust in customizing management development and hope to use it soon in combination with lean principles (in which I’m still a novice).


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