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Brain Study Reveals a New Picture of Manufacturing Leadership

Why do some leaders pay attention to people while others focus on the numbers? New studies of the brain using fMRI and EEG are showing that we have two different neural networks in the brain, one for facts, figures and problem solving and another for people and relationships. Neuroscientists refer to these largely independent domains as the Task Positive Network (TPN) and the Default Mode Network (DMN). The TPN is activated when a leader focuses on business problems, business results, and financial metrics. The DMN, so named because it was once thought to be the brain’s natural resting state, is activated when a leader is engaged in listening, team building, and employee development. The more you use one of these networks, the stronger it grows, and so does the likelihood that you will use it automatically in your leadership role.

The most valued mindset in business management and leadership has long been the TPN. This is the belief that management by objectives and accountability are the way to achieve profitability, ROI, and shareholder value. How leaders achieve these business goals is up to them. Managers can monitor reports from a distance and keep an eye on performance. Rewards go to those whose numbers look good, and blame lands on the unfortunate others whose results fall short.

Even as that model has prevailed, there has been an alternate school of thought that says attention to people, benevolence, and inclusiveness — using the DMN — increases motivation, loyalty, and performance.

The successes of lean manufacturing and Toyota-style management are supporting the idea that combining the two leadership approaches pays off. Respect for people and a continuous development of their capabilities — which relate to the DMN domain — lead to growth and profitability. Then the TPN enables problem solving, the scientific method and the use of data.

There’s a catch to using the two neural networks together. Whenever you use one, it shuts off the other. Fortunately, the brain naturally cycles between the two. The key is to develop the ability to switch over when it’s advantageous.

Richard Boyatzis and his associates at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University have been studying the interplay between the two neural networks, and have helped hundreds of executives learn how to make better use of both domains. Many are steeped in traditional TPN-based management methods and need help in strengthening the DMN. To do that, Boyatzis says that incorporating coaching into your daily routine is the key. When leaders are mindfully and regularly coaching others, they develop stronger employees to make the organization better. As better listeners, leaders find it easier to make informed decisions. And the process of helping others to do well is a source of stress relief and renewal for the coach.

After I shared this insight with one lean manufacturing leader, he told me that hearing about the neural basis of the two types of leadership made him more conscious of how he was using them. He thought about the TPN being activated when he analyzed data to understand value stream flows. Then he could see how he used his DMN as he considered the interests, needs, and fears of the people who had to understand those value stream processes in order to make improvements. That awareness can help him shift when the situation calls for it.

These new studies show us that we’re moving toward a convergence of neuroscience and management science. And as we learn more about what goes on inside our heads, we’ll have new ways for leaders to leverage their brainpower.

Further info: Leaders Wired to Be Task-Focused or Team-Builders, But Can Be Both, March 24, 2014, Case Western Reserve University

Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.

    June 04, 2014

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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