I have been a fan of the “Smarter Every Day” channel on YouTube.com for a while. When I first saw the channel’s post on “The Backwards Brain Bicycle,” I found it fascinating.

On the positive side


The United States Marine Corps teaches about “muscle memory.” They say that, if you do the same thing about 300 times, not only will you improve with each execution—“practice makes perfect”—but, by the end of that time, you will be able to do much of what you have been practicing blindfolded, in the dark, or while being actively engaged in some other thought process. We have all heard the old saying: “I’ve done that so often, I could do it in my sleep,” meaning without actively involving the cognitive functions of our brain during the execution.


This is what professional musicians do. The violinist or cellist who can play flawlessly a concerto that may run upwards of 30 minutes in length has not, necessarily, committed to memory each note on the many pages of music that constitute his or her part in the performance. Rather, through their repeated practice, muscle memory has taken hold and much of the performance is carried out without the performer’s cognitive thought processes about notes to be played and finger positions on the instrument.


Another explanation


Alfredo Angrisani, commenting on the backwards brain bicycle on LinkedIn.com says:


“[T]his makes me think of the findings of Daniel Kanemann [sic - Kahneman] and his book Thinking, Fast and Slow: Our actions are determined most of the time by what he calls System 1, a status or a part of our brains that governs in 'normality': it is always active, automatic, reactive, tightly connected with or body functions, completely outside of our control (like the bike experiment shows) and that doesn't get tired, To name just a few of its characteristics.


“System 1 is always on, it monitors constantly the environment and calls System 2 up on action as soon as it spots any potentially dangerous lack of coherence in the environment (maybe a car breaking at a short distance in front of us).


“One of the key factors that makes a pattern look safe to System 1 is repetition: the usual way things are done (wrong or right, doesn't matter much, we are still alive and kicking, aren't we?) including what everybody keeps repeating and implying over and over in their stories (like the good of about cost reduction, going lean, using more technology, adding complication, centralising control ... you name it).


“This confirms to System 1 that we are going down a safe path in an essentially coherent world, and he's happy.


“System 2 is our 'intelligent and elaborating self', it is smart and elaborating (Should I brake or should I go?, Should I move the handlebar to the right or to the left?), but it has the annoying feature of having a limited capacity and getting tired. So if you try to overburden, it disconnects or works only on priorities (Sorry, can you repeat, I was thinking about something else!).


“In conclusion, as going out of the beaten path is by definition a tiring matter, we better make it simple (visible), rewarding and reassuring (to us and to the others) in order to move our operating mode as quickly as possible into the System 1 domain, lest System 2 gets annoyed and gives up to the day-to-day priorities following the established (repeating and perceived as less risky) patterns.”


The danger of saying, “We know”


While I have not read the book, what Kahneman seems to be saying is this: Since employing our “system 2,” our “intelligent and elaborating self,” is hard work, we frequently take shortcuts in our reasoning by saying, in essence: “If system 1 can handle it, let it. Employing system 2 makes me too tired, or system 2 is too occupied with other seemingly more important matters.”


What we are declaring by taking this default position is: “I already know and understand this situation. I’ve been through it lots of times—may 300 or more times. There’s nothing new here. System 1 can take over and things will be fine.”


The problem is, Kahneman’s “system 1” has become “the box” for our thinking.


When we use the phrase, “thinking out of the box,” we are really saying: “Look. We think we’ve been here before. We think we know all there is to know about this situation, and we think we know what our response should be. However, doing what we’ve always done hasn’t gotten us what we need. We need to rethink this situation.”


Installing new “Thoughtware”


I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t. The concept of “thoughtware” originated, apparently, at the Goldratt Institute in the 1980s and 90s. It first came to my attention while reading Demand Driven Performance Using Smart Metrics by Debra Smith and Chad Smith.


Most organizations have evolved using the traditional approach to problem solving. They try to break down the complexities they see all across their enterprise into functions and departments and attack each “problem” independent from a view of the entire “system”—read: the entire enterprise, or even supply chain.


In fact, Smith and Smith say, “In most cases, people inside companies are prohibited, discouraged, and / or incapable of thinking about problems and solutions from a systemic point of view…. Individuals and the organization can be made capable [however]. To drive meaningful and rapid improvement, problems must be defined and solutions must be developed from a systems and flow based perspective….” (Smith, Debra, and Chad Smith. Demand Driven Performance: Using Smart Metrics. p.21. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014.)


Smith and Smith’s premise is quite straightforward and could save companies hundreds of thousands of dollars—perhaps even millions: “[B]efore an organization should consider making additional huge investments in hardware and software to compensate for the New Normal [read: today’s highly volatile and rapidly changing business environment], it should first consider investing in Thoughtware. Thoughtware is people’s ability to think and communicate systematically [read: from a system-wide view]. By focusing our collective intuition, we will bring to light the problematic assumptions, outdated and conflicting rules, and knee-jerk reactions that not only make our bed but force us to lie on it. Without correct thoughtware installed, additional investments in hardware and software are often squandered either through their misapplication or due to the fact that they were not really required from a flow perspective in the first place.” (Ibid. p. 23)


Trying to ride a backwards brain bicycle


Trying to solve today’s supply chain and business problems using yesterday’s rules and logic—the things that work five, ten or 15 years ago—is like trying to ride a backwards brain bicycle using the things your brain learned riding a regular bicycle. You and your team desperately need new thoughtware!


Consider these questions:

  1. Are people in your organization formally trained to think from a system-wide view of the challenges you face in your company or across your supply chain?
  2. Do they have a common problem-solving language and framework to help them work toward sound solutions?
  3. Do people in your company understand the connections between departments, resources, and people, or is their intuition limited largely to their own silo of operations?
  4. Are people given enough visibility to see the relevant connections between departments, resources, and people? Do they know how to quickly convert data into relevant information that helps improve system-wide flow?
  5. Are people discouraged from thinking and offering solutions outside their functional silos?
  6. Can people readily identify how and where variability accumulates and amplifies to negatively affect the performance of the whole system or supply chain?

(Questions adapted from Smith, Debra, and Chad Smith. Demand Driven Performance: Using Smart Metrics. pp. 23f. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014.)


We believe we can help you learn to ride your own “backward brain bicycle”—your enterprise struggling with a dramatically changed and changing world of business.

Please tell us about your experiences and how you and your team “think outside the box.”