Learning Builds Systems: Respectful or Destructive

On Drug Addiction and Lean Coaching

Addiction is a learned pattern in which we all engage.

When we talk about respect for people, what do we really mean? This central tenet of Lean is where our documentation is the weakest. At the crux of respect for people, in my opinion, is making sure they live in systems that respect them and they can return that respect.

I have met a lot of Lean Coaches who have thousands of hours of Lean experience but only read books by Lean Authors. I’ve met Agile coaches who believe that tech solves problems and there is nothing the rest of the world can teach them.

I also know that both Tonianne and my colleague from LEI, Josh Howell have told me to watch The Defiant Ones to see the systems thinking in the relationship of Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. They give me hope.

The more we only read books or take in information that discusses the systems we expect to see, the less we’ll be able to see the systems that are actually there.

In this vein, I believe the best systems-thinking book I’ve read in quite some time is Unbroken Brain, a book about addiction and learning by Maia Szalavitz.

The book steps through the evolution of her life as a smart kid, an addict, and ultimately, an intelligent woman who has traversed an addiction cycle (cycle in the systems sense of PDSA) and come out with some pretty serious insights.

The main insight is that addiction is a learned pattern of behavior that is exacerbated by interaction with other systems that are ignorant of or hostile to that learned pattern. There are a lot of conflicting systems at play in family, school, the law, and society as a whole. Some of these are quite counter-intuitive, as systems are wont to be. There’s a lot more chaos and complexity in our world than our tidy sound-bite understanding of things is comfortable with.

When we go into companies to help them “on their Lean journeys”, we come with a certain and expressed world-view. That world-view is helpful, generally, but can limit our options if we are not aware of our own learned patterns / blind spots / biases.

In Maia’s world, her journey through 12-step programs (which are pure expressions of the dangers of standard work without review), led her into a world focused on the reduction of variation in the addict’s lives in an attempt to help them become more productive and effective.

This, in turn, ended up making people who already felt disenfranchised feel even more like their individual needs were even less important. (The system was more important than the people).

The 12-step system was so certain that it had come up with the way to cure addiction, that there was no room for review, deviation, or continuous improvement (except for the enforced improvement of the addict — they were the ones who needed to improve). How many times have we seen all sorts of kaizen activity on the shop floor and total unimprovable chaos in the C-suite? Or great PDSA on spot problems, but still reliance on inhumane annual review processes (360 or otherwise)?

Improvement in Maia’s world is a perfect analog to how Lean is often brought to the shop floor. “Management has decided you all need to continuously improve.”

What’s most interesting though is the notion that these are natural divisions. Marxists are going, “well, duh,” but I mean deeper than that.

Szalavitz makes a convincing case that many of the “self-destructive” things we do are learned behaviors. On the shop floor or in the cubicles we might see these learned, but self-destructive behaviors as siloing, backstabbing, information hoarding, and general system-gaming. None of these happen because the behavior helps us in the long term, but they happen because the current systems are imbalanced and can only be locally optimized for the individual by engaging in an activity that makes the pain go away.

And we continue to engage in those behaviors long after that pain is gone.

In Szalavitz’s case, the pain came from being different — growing up in a way that wasn’t coordinate with how society was comfortable. Somewhat autistic, somewhat OCD, too smart in some ways, clueless in others — Maia was anything but standard work was a kid. Frustrated because she could offer so much more, but stuck because there was no system to accept her offerings, she quite intentionally turned to drug use. Rationally, even.

Years ago, I was sitting in a beautiful restaurant in the still downtrodden Soma area of San Francisco (it looks nothing like that now) with my friend Brent. Brent had quite a background, he graduated from high school in Idaho and moved to Seattle and became a Heroin addict. Then he went back to visit his mom and ran into some people from high school who asked what he was up to. He said, “I live in Seattle and do heroin.” They said something like, “Yeah, we figured you’d probably end up being a druggie.”

That pissed him off.

So, he stopped doing heroin, went to school, learned to code, and when we were eating dinner he was a lead developer at Charles Schwab. He had a paid-for townhome in Noe Valley. Things seemed pretty awesome.

He said to me at dinner, “I’ve decided to start using again, but I wanted to have dinner with you and tell you before I started.” I thought he was joking.

He was not joking.

Brent told me, “When I was using, I felt happy for very short but definite periods of time. Now, I’m just never happy.”

“Well, let’s find other ways to make you happy.” I said.

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“I think it does.”

By the end of that evening, Brent was experiencing his first meth experience and I was back at my hotel wondering what the hell just happened.

By the end of the next year, Brent had no home, no job, and was hiding from his dealer.

Why did that happen? Brent was no longer physically addicted to anything. It had been over a decade since he quit and when he went back, he didn’t even go for heroin on his return.

Maia’s case is that it was a learned behavior. That the brain wires itself to need not necessarily the drug, but the promise of escape. You, as an addict, can sit there while prepping the needle and say, “I don’t even want this, why am I doing this?” And then you do it anyway.

Emotionality, rationality, aren’t really at play. What is at play is what Brent said. That there was an outcome, short term but definite.

Brent’s replacement system, his new learned behavior, coding at Schwab, didn’t have the reflection points to say “is my new system — my new standard work — giving me what I need?” Is someone looking after me?

I had hoped that was why we were talking over dinner, but it wasn’t. He’d already decided.

When we build new systems for people, those systems need to understand that the people in them get something from the system we are creating. We need to understand that we have no clue what their needs are. That’s why they need to build their own systems and those systems need to be both honest and reflective.

We coaches have our own learned addictions — patterns we fall back on, tools we use, solutions that look strangely like the last ones we did. Patterns of behavior that we’ve seen make the pain go away, but might not build the stability or feedback this particular group needs. Most often, we do that by myopically focusing on where the work is done and not how the governing systems of the work or relationships of the supply chain (who is requesting the work) happen.

No, this isn’t as intense as sticking a needle in your arm, but the learned patterns of behavior still lead to actions that we engage in without making sure they are helpful. It’s still becomes a religion at best and an addiction at worst (or maybe it’s the other way around?) If you don’t believe me, try taking away a Lean coaches ability to set up an A3 or tell an Agile coach that sprints are inappropriate.

Our goal as Lean professionals should be to help them build defensible but outwardly interactive systems that both give stability to the person or the team and let them grow and get feedback through interaction. Growth can’t happen with rigidity or isolation. It can’t happen by imposing a system we’ve designed or always constructed out of tools or structures we are comfortable with.

Growth and stability can only happen by approaching the people who are dealing with years of learned behaviors and help them devise healthy and responsive substitutes for what, essentially, are their emotional and rational responses for being stuck in unclear or malevolent systems.

When we talk about respect for people this is what we should mean. People need good feedback often in order to feel like they are respected.

Your homework, Lean people, is to read Unbroken Brain cover-to-cover and ask yourself, is she only talking about drug addiction?

There will be epiphanies.



About Jim

Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller: Personal Kanban. His other books include Why Limit WIP, Why Plans Fail, and Beyond Agile. He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking and the Brickell Key Award. He and Tonianne teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working system. He regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.