Have you ever run into something that you already knew, but didn't know you knew it? That happened to me recently at church. The sermon wasn't about lean, but it did include two topics that can easily apply to lean thinking. That got my attention. For one of the topics the pastor used an example that related directly to a situation my wife and I had recently gone through. It is likely that you have gone through something similar as well.
The example involved a process that seems to be inherent in buying a new car, or, for that matter, any new experience in our lives. My wife and I decided to purchase a crossover vehicle. We haven't owned one previously, so we decided it would be best to stick with the brand of the family car that we've had good luck with. We found an affordable model in that brand and became the proud owner of our first all-purpose vehicle. After we bought it, we suddenly discovered how many different crossover vehicles there are on the road today. It seems everyone owns one. That discovery process, as we learned from the sermon, is called RAS - Reticular Activating System.

Understanding RAS

Now that you know what RAS means, you'll probably say the same thing I did, "I knew that, I just didn't know there was a name for it." The Reticular Activating System is a small part of the brain that handles much of the filtering of information that we are continually bombarded with. The filtering takes place based on beliefs that we develop concerning things we have learned or experienced.
For instance, if you believe that the world is full of amazing and incredible people, slowly but surely you will encounter many amazing and incredible people. The filter you developed creates a new mindset. As you give access to your mind for new convictions, new thoughts make their way into your subconscious.  From a lean perspective that means that if you believe there are opportunities for improvement in your business processes, you will continually become aware of all of the waste and non-value-adding activity that has previously gone unnoticed.


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Rewiring your lean filter

This lean filter is developed through your conviction that improvements need to be made for your business to be successful; that you have the ability to make improvements when opportunities reveal themselves; and, that one discovery will lead to another discovery and so on. Your brain will be conditioned to see things around you differently.
Conditioning your brain in this way doesn't just happen. If it were that simple, you would have no need for lean thinking, and I wouldn't have a job. Just as the decision to purchase a crossover vehicle started with a decision for new transportation and evolved through the evaluation and selection steps, pursuing lean follows a similar process, as well. The conditioning process begins with training. Training reaffirms the decision for change and begins the process of rewiring the filter in your mind so you begin to see what was previously invisible.

Game teaches RAS

As mentioned earlier, I didn't realize I was practicing RAS in my lean facilitation until I learned what RAS is. An example of how I have been using RAS is a game that I incorporate into the lean training. This game illustrates how rewiring the brain begins to take place. The game is called Boggle. It is a word game in which the players make as many words as they can from a random assortment of letters similar to the illustration accompanying this article.
Like all games, there are rules that the players have to follow. Basically, letters have to connect with each other vertically, horizontally, or diagonally as they appear in the work. For instance, the four upper right squares contain the letters U E S and F. You can build the words, "fuse" "use" and "sue" from those letters by applying the connection rules. After you play the game a few times, the Reticular Activating System filter allows you to see words that were previously just part of the blur of 16 random letters. Believe it or not, there are more than 60 words hidden in that maze of letters. Discovering all of those words takes time and practice.

Hidden opportunities

The more people there are playing the Boggle game, the wider the variety of words that are discovered. It never ceases to amaze me that two or more people can look at the same assortment of letters, but not see the same words. The same thing happens when people begin to apply lean thinking at work. A waste that jumps out at one person might not be noticed by another. But that's okay.
A lean transformation is not a race to see who makes the most waste discoveries. Discovering hidden waste to lead to improvement opportunities in your business takes as much practice as it does to see all of the words in the game. The more you begin to make those discoveries, the more you realize the multitudes of opportunities hidden in the blur of daily activity. That realization has been affirmed by every leader of a lean thinking business that we have worked with over the past 20+ years.
Applying RAS can be contagious. As you share results, other leaders and staff will begin to develop their own new filter. When that happens, watch out! Monumental change will begin to take place in proportions that you can only dare dream of today. My new business partner, Brad Cairns, CEO of Signature Wood Systems, who most of you are likely familiar with from other articles in recent years, is capturing how contagious these discoveries can be. Members of the staff at SWS are continually discovering and sharing new improvements that Brad is posting on YouTube. You can view them by entering The Center for Lean Learning channel at the YouTube site. As you view them, keep in mind that the people you see in the videos are no different than the people working at your company, except that they have been encouraged to apply a little RAS to their lean thinking.
The other thing that I didn't know that I already knew that came out of the pastor's sermon was some words of wisdom from Thomas J Watson, a former chairman of the board of IBM. One of his words of wisdom statements is, “You can be discouraged by failure, or you can learn from it. So, go ahead and make mistakes, make all you can. Because remember, that is where you will find success - on the far side of failure.” He also shared this insight, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”  We don't advocate that you give everyone free rein to flip your company on its ear, but as you encourage people to apply lean thinking, you may want to share those words of wisdom to nudge people to move outside of their comfort zone.
Let 2016 be the year that you develop your RAS and the year you encourage others to continue to improve their processes, even in the wake of failure.

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