Posted by: Knightbird | February 23, 2017

Biased Assimilation of New Evidence

I have spent over a decade trying to persuade managers to adopt Lean Thinking in place of typical command and control management. But by the time a CEO or highly placed executive reaches their position, they are not prone to accept new information. In a high percentage of them, what they have done brought them to where they are. It would take a change of motivation for them to change their existing bias towards command and control. I find this particularly true of finance trained executives. They wear, for the most part, huge blinders. I used to be frustrated by this resistance, at least enough to research why. In Lean Thinking terms, I want to know the root cause for resistance to change. In my experience, once non-executive employees experience Lean Thinking, they become converts only if the change is heavily supported by the Executive Team.

My query led to this article[1] and its predecessor[2] about the operation of confirmation bias and its effect on how we assimilate new evidence that either confirms or disconfirms our existing operating theory. Existing theory typically comes to us from tradition (we learn it on the job); faith (we believe it because of other people’s belief who we trust); or propaganda (we did it this way and it worked for us, so it will work for you). Ignorance about Lean Thinking is propagated by a lack of knowledge about Lean Thinking (Ignorance) and special interest groups who want to create confusion or ignorance. Executives often exhibit both. They fail to understand the full importance of Lean Thinking, or it fails to serve their personal interests.

Excuses that Lean won’t work are everywhere, and every lean leader has heard lots of them. We are not an automobile company (reference to Toyota’s development of the system); we are different (from what?) I am not going to practice cookie cutter medicine; our leadership won’t accept it. What Lord’s paper describes is a process where any evidence is accepted as either confirmatory or non-confirmatory depending on our beliefs. It doesn’t matter what the evidence shows. Our brain interprets it to support our position, and we are strengthened in our opposition. We are biased against assimilation of evidence that doesn’t support our existing beliefs.

And there are consultants providing an array of services that profit from ignorance. So, they add to the confusion by spreading their message. One I recall had to do with writing thank you notes to employees and system partners. I visited with 2 executives from this organization, and immediately received hand written notes thanking me for meeting with them. Never mind that my concerns were never addressed. I still got the notes. And it’s no longer the practice at this organization. But because it was taught to them by the former CEO of a Baldrige Award winning organization, they accepted it for a period.

The second paper discusses a possible solution to confirmation biases. It is called “consider the opposite.” Strangely enough, it doesn’t ask you to accept the evidence. It only encourages you to ask yourself, at each step, whether you would have come to your conclusion if the results of the evidence had been the opposite of what it was. While I am still looking at research, this approach seems promising.

The other approach requires a change in motivation, as in your business is failing and you need to do something. This approach didn’t work for the board I was serving on until last June. Despite millions of dollars in business operations, the approach didn’t change. The approach was kept, but the message was refined “we know how to do it better now.” We just need to buy more profitable businesses. And the leadership group bought into that message, and excluded any real consideration of making existing businesses better through Lean Thinking.

This Consider the Opposite approach looks like it might lead to strategies that overcome what one writer has referred to as “the natural human shortsightedness to alternatives.” I sure hope so. I got sick and tired of seeing opportunity wasted and money lost.

[1] Lord, C. G., Lepper, M. R., & Preston, E. (1984). Considering the opposite: A corrective strategy for social judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 1231-1243.

[2] Lord, C. G., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 2098-2109.


  1. Lean has been around for a long time and the naming was not Toyota’s idea. The proof of wisdom is in the results. I don’t sell “lean” per se. I am a change agent with a proven track record that speaks for itself. Taking a company out of the red and into the black in a matter of months can’t just be described as an exercise in “lean” or “lean thinking.” I’ve had some company presidents call the transformation a miracle.

    It’s about radical change, quickly, and effectively. It’s not about consulting and advising. It’s about identifying the opportunities, identifying solutions, and executing changes – immediately! There’s no time for discussion, just getting it done, monitoring results, and correcting negative trends at the earliest possible moment.

    Achieving radical change requires all the sense of urgency a crisis deserves. When the business is back on the road to recovery, the time will come when those at the top want to know how “you” did it.

    Unfortunately, without a pattern of successes that speak for themselves, we are simply looking for an opportunity to apply what we think know from someone else’s successes.

    • As a CEO in the past, I viewed it was my job to transform the culture, although I know what you are talking about. Porsche went through what you are describing, Kaikaku. It’s when a seasoned Sensei guides the change because they have been there so many time and can direct a productive pathway. However, in Alaska, our government has hired consultants, not Sensei’s, and their change is just a one off improvement that isn’t sustainable.
      The culture of Lean actually allows the delegation of improvement to supervisors and mid level managers, with appropriate engagement of Executives performing Leader Standard Work.
      With Cultural Lean, the Organization takes over improvement as its continuous objective. I have been there once, and its a great feeling.
      Thanks for your comment.

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