Struggle with Change? Engagement Kata, The Essential Tool in the Innovation Toolbox


Mark's Note: Today's post is by Dr. Mark Jaben, following up our recent podcast discussion. See his previous guest posts

Hidden brain ————–> prefrontal cortex ————–> creativity

Mark JabenOur brain is only willing to expend the necessary energy to be creative when the prefrontal cortex, our conscious awareness,  has analyzed all the possible responses it knows about and nothing is satisfactory.

But the vast majority of our decision making doesn't take place there in the prefrontal cortex. This decision making more often  occurs in the “Hidden Brain,” a function with which we have no direct connection and no insight. Research demonstrates that our brain operates by concocting a plausible explanation of the sensory data it receives. Regardless of whether this is real or not, the brain treats this plausible explanation as the ‘truth' it can act upon. Moreover, this interpretation always begins in the amygdala, the flight or fight, stress response area. Because the amygdala is concerned solely with individual survival to the exclusion of everything and everyone else, we ‘see' the world in our own way.

Of course, reality and other viewpoints may differ from this ‘truth.' For this, we have mirror neurons, an adaptation which enable us to ‘feel the pain of others'  without having to actually experience it ourselves, an attempt to incorporate these other views into our interpretation. But studies demonstrate that the more power and control one has, the less active these mirror neurons are.

Research also indicates that before our brain is even able to be creative, the prefrontal cortex must evaluate and find that none of the available options aree satisfactory. Unless we can get past this amygdala thinking to the prefrontal cortex, where our brain can consider and explore all the known possibilities, we'll never get to creativity and innovation.This sequence cannot be short circuited. It's just the way our brain operates.

How, then, can we know where the brain is processing?

resistance <———————> satisfaction

Resistance is one of the few clues we have, but identifying where the resistance is coming from is not so easy. People who say ‘no' may have a well reasoned view and speak from their prefrontal cortex. Others who say ‘yes' may have no interest in following through and are really just trying to protect themselves; they are in their amygdala.

Studies show that a person with a fixed, strongly held belief is processing in their amygdala. But that same person, discussing options and alternatives, is now processing in their prefrontal cortex. When we apply prefrontal cortex approaches, like Lean tools, and it doesn't get a satisfactory response, it may not be that the other person is lazy, unmotivated, or incapable. It may be they are just in their amygdala, and unless we can get past that resistance, there is little hope for a fruitful discussion, let alone the chance for anything creative.

In addition, we have seriously misinterpreted what satisfaction means.

The conventional belief is that it depends on what the other person wants. ‘What I want' is amygdala thinking. Satisfaction really depends on what they need, or prefrontal cortex thinking.  Often we don't know what we need, so we substitute what we want. To get to prefrontal cortex thinking, we have to discover what is  actually needed- what you need and what they need.

In a previous podcast, Scott Sambucci noted that the sales process is about matching the product to the customer needs. The first step, then, is to learn those needs. This is where the “Engagement kata” starts, because as Dan Pink argues in To Sell Is Human, we are all ‘selling' our ideas all the time.

In Lean fashion, the Engagement kata is an attempt at the most direct path from where you are to where you want to be – from amygdala to prefrontal cortex, from resistance to satisfaction.

Step 1- Recognize the resistance- how can we know if we even need to invoke the Engagement kata?

Fortunately, It only takes two questions to identify if the other person is satisfied.

When you are concluding any conversation, ask:

  1. Are there questions or concerns that come to mind?
  2. Is there something that will make this difficult for you to do?

‘no' and ‘no' signifies satisfaction; they are in their prefrontal cortex.

But if the person is not there:

Step 2- Respond to the resistance

a) Discover their need – two questions that provide insight into their perspective:

  1. ‘what about this doesn't work?'
  2. ‘what about this doesn't work for you?'

Everyone is happy to tell you what doesn't work from their perspective. But when you ask ‘what's difficult for you,' it expresses your commitment to them and demonstrates you have their interests at heart, boosting your mirror neurons and theirs.

In actuality, there are only three reasons someone resists:

  1. there is no agreement about the problem at hand;
  2. they don't see any way to be successful in what is proposed;
  3. they agree on the problem and see a way to be successful, it's just not worth their effort to change. These questions help you sort that out.

b) Examine your own credibility

If the gap is between resistance and satisfaction,

and the point of cause is the mirror neurons,

and the root cause is in the effect of power on those mirror neurons,

then the countermeasure is to boost your mirror neuron activity.

Given the plausability issue and the preference for our amygdala, how might we do this?

The insight here comes from the 2002 BBC Reith lecture, ‘A Matter of Trust,' by Onora O'Neill, British philosopher, talking about the growing mistrust of the media at that time. She lays out a framework for acting with credibility, based on acting toward others without deception and without coercion.

In contrast to the media, which she felt was at times intentionally deceptive, in healthcare, this is mostly unintentional. We can be inadvertently deceptive when we don't assure our data is the ‘right' data –  capable (of providing insight into the issue at hand) and believable (gathered in an acceptable manner, and verifiable by those who are impacted by it.) Satisfaction surveys are a good example of data that can be deceptive.

We might be acting coercively when we don't devise standards the ‘right' way. They may be either too prescriptive or not detailed enough. There are usually unintended consequences that we have not recognized or not bothered to seek out. To act without coercion requires a commitment to tease out options that enable every involved party to be successful in their responsibilities, even if those options are not immediately recognizable.

This is the significance of the spirit of ‘kaizen,'  translated as ‘change for the better' with the implication that it is ‘better for everyone involved.'  Your credibility, then, is the key to your response. And, like a nickname, you don't determine how credible you are; that is determined by the other person.

Two questions that provide insight into yourself to flesh out your response:

  1. ‘am I using the ‘right' data?'
  2. ‘am I supporting the ‘right' standards?'

Step 3- Reconcile the resistance – 2 questions to reconcile the gap between the two:

  1. ‘what can we agree on?'
  2. ‘what can we agree to?'

This keeps us from having to ‘hold someone accountable,'  or convincing the other person to ‘buy-in.'

Now, it's about what you both can live with – what each of you needs – what everyone agrees to try and the difficulties encountered in trying to follow through. This is way less threatening to the amygdala. By the time you answer these questions, everyone will be in their prefrontal cortex,  ready and able to participate in the next step toward improvement.

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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. Dr. Jaben’s insights are valuable because they provide an explanation for observable phenomena, which helps us better understand the true nature of the problem, and also provides a practical countermeasure. In the past, we were taught by our sensei that people who resisted change were “concrete heads” and there was not much we could do about it. Now we have a better approach for dealing with resistance that will improve the probability of favorable outcomes (i.e. engagement with Lean principles and practices). And, importantly, it changes the nature of resistance from being a people problem to a process problem.

      • The way the term “concrete head” was represented to me by my senseis was as a fact, not as derogatory or disrespectful. That nuance sometimes gets lost in translation.

        I understood it as the name given to a problem (people unwilling to accept new ideas), that required more attention on the part of management. It represented both a management challenge to get people to accept new ideas or (eventually) part ways with those who won’t. Also, it informed management of who NOT to put in leadership positions, because they will undermine Lean transformation efforts.

        The origins of the term are described in Note 7 on page 178 of Better Thinking, Better Results.

        • They may have thought it was factual (and it might have been), but I don’t see how that term comes across to the recipient as anything but disrespectful and derogatory. I’d propose those who used that term didn’t understand American business culture.

          Like you said in the earlier comment, the more constructive approach is to ask “why” people are being “resistant” and move forward from there.

          There are some (American) consultants who, even today, emulate this pattern that they learned from Shingujitsu, the “we’ll insult you until you get it approach” and that really turns a lot of people off. It doesn’t have to be done that way.

          I know you’re reporting what happened, Bob, not advocating for us to call people “concrete head.”

  2. Though, people who eventually accepted the new ideas often refer to their former selves as “concrete heads” in a proud way, reflecting their ability to change. They use the term as a badge of courage and themselves as an example, as part of story-telling, to get others to change. It can be quite effective.

    I’m saying that meaning and context matter. Different groups can interpret a term as pejorative or not. Indiscriminate use of the term as you describe, however, creates new problems.

    • I think “concrete head” is a term best assigned to oneself :-)

      Likewise, I think nobody should ever call themselves a “sensei.” If somebody else calls you a sensei, that seems more appropriate.

      I know the word basically just means “teacher,” but in American business culture, it seems odd and arrogant for somebody to call themselves a “Lean sensei.” That’s just me. I hated having the formal job title “Lean Expert” at Honeywell, by the way.

  3. Mark and Bob,

    Just goes to show the power of language, and that among the 3 of us who embrace the approach/spirit of Lean. Imagine all the ……out there who haven’t yet!

    Mark, maybe it is time for another column about terms/phrases a person committed to a ‘Lean’ approach would not use.


  4. […] Others followed. Together, our observations and research, carefully documented in scholarly papers (see my papers here) and in trade books (see my books here), have turned the secrets (i.e. tacit knowledge) known only to a few into information (i.e. explicit knowledge) that is openly knowable by anyone. In addition, we now understand the reasons why leaders resist Lean and what to do about it. […]


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