Back Menu

For media inquiries about Gray and our projects, contact Jill Wilson, Vice President, Communications & Marketing

Why the Brain Resists Continuous Improvement & What You Can Do About It

Why the Brain Resists Continuous Improvement & What You Can Do About It

Why do those crazy people resist change?  Don’t they know these changes are good for the company, and even good for them?  Ever experience this frustration?  There is a lot of advice out there about overcoming resistance to change.  It includes communicating more clearly what is in it for them, empathetic listening, acknowledging that their feelings are legitimate, and other soft side humanitarian measures. These are all legitimate and kind, but will not work by themselves. The more traditional approach is to shove the change down their collective throats:  Change or else.  This can work, with enough force, but we know from behavioral science that as soon as the intense monitoring and force is lifted, behaviors will drift back toward the old ways.  It is even more complicated if what you want is continuous improvement, which involves people making improvements when management is not looking.  This suggests a culture of people who actually care about the company and have the skills to collectively move the organization toward higher performance.

We are learning more about resistance to change from neuroscience. We are learning that it is not only natural, but most often even involuntary.  A blog post by Mark Jaben, MD, gives us deep insight into what is going on in our brains that causes resistance to these ideas. Here is a simplified summary (see Figure 1):

Figure 1: The 21st Century Brain - Barely Evolved in Ten Thousand Years
  1. There is a primitive part of our brain he calls the “hidden brain” (the Amygdale). It is the place where we have uncontrollable emotional reactions that we cannot trace to the cause.  Its main imperative is survival and any perceived threat leads automatically to a fight or flight response.  Think of it as the Read Only Memory (ROM) of a computer that has preprogrammed routines, but in this case, they get called automatically by various circumstances. Furthermore, we cannot control which ones get called and when.
  2. There is a more modern evolved part of our brain called the Prefrontal Cortex (PF).  This is the reasoning part of the brain, sometimes called the human brain (see Brain Rules).  Think of it as the Central Processing Unit of a computer that does the thinking for the computer.
  3. Our brain uses up to 20 percent of our energy.  In the days when food was scarce, humans did their best to conserve energy, which meant relying as much as possible on the hidden brain for survival.  Even today most of our decisions and perceptions come from the hidden brain.
  4. Using the PF actually causes pain, because it takes hard work.  The good news is that we do want to enhance our chances of survival, and when we plot a new path and take a new step that works, we get shots of Dopamine that give us a pleasure rush.

The best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow has a parallel to these two parts of the brain.  The “Fast Thinking” part is the hidden brain and quickly turns inputs into opinions and decisions based on stored associations and routines.  The “Slow Thinking” part is in the PF and reasons through decisions.

Continuous improvement is based on a model of improvement that relies heavily on the PF.  We are to have a clear direction, sift carefully through data and direct observations to understand the facts of the current condition, define short-term target conditions, and systematically test hypotheses about how we can get closer to the target condition through Plan-Do-Check-Act.   This is very energy intensive and causes pain to think so deeply and learn new things.  So, can we overcome the obstacles the hidden brain presents to thoughtful and deliberate improvement?

In Change or Die, Alan Deutschman looked at the facts and found that 90 percent of people who are told to change their exercise and diet habits or die in less than a year, will actually die in less than a year.  What he found do NOT work are the 3Fs—Facts, Fear, and Force (see figure 2).  Facts are attempts to influence the PF, but the resistance comes from the hidden brain that is not processing facts rationally.  Fear and Force directed at our survival instinct only work if you were to have a gun to the person’s head constantly and direct everything they do 24 hours a day—not likely.


Figure 2: Overcoming Resistance Is Hard Work, and the 3Fs Rarely Work

However, what does work and increases the odds to 90 percent survival are the 3Rs -Relate, Repeat, and Reframe.  The Relate comes from someone we look up to guiding us—a coach—and a supportive peer group.  The Repeat requires repeating healthy behaviors until they become the new routines.   And as we do this, we begin to Reframe what our future can look like.  It is a slow, deliberate, and disciplined process, and we can see it at work in organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous.

Figure 3: But Creating New Behavior Patters Is Possible through the 3Rs!

If the brain is filled with routines that get in the way of change, perhaps we can beat the brain at its own game—create new automatic routines that support continuous improvement.  The Improvement Kata that I spoke about in earlier blogs does just that.  It is based on taking small steps to get from a factual understanding of the current condition toward a clearly defined target condition (see figure 4). 

Figure 4: Small, Rapid Experiments Reduce the Cost of Failure & Advance Your Knowledge Quickly

Each step is designed to be rapid and non-threatening.  In other words, the cost of failure is not high.  And the successes encourage us with Dopamine rushes. It relies on intensive repetition—at least 15 minutes every day.  And it depends on a well-trained coach checking and supporting the learner every day.  Over time, the thinking and behaviors of continuous improvement become new habits—the natural way your hidden brain has been retrained to work.

Dr. Jeffrey Liker is professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan and author of The Toyota Way.  He leads Liker Lean Advisors, LLC and his latest book (with Gary Convis) is The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership.