Kanban, Mental Models, and Double Loop Learning

DoubleLoopLearningBack in September of last year I wrote about The Fifth Discipline and the Agile Enterprise. In that article I connected mental models and double loop learning with Agile. Mental Models are a way to describe a person’s intuitive perception of the world around them. How we act on that world, our decision rules, are based on  our mental models. In single loop learning, we may change our decisions, but we leave our underlying mental models and decision rule unchanged. In double-loop learning, we change our underlying mental models and decision rules to better serve us in the real world. I talked about how Agile, when done well, inspires us to explore our mental models and improve our decision rules. When our mental models go unexplored, we won’t change our decisions and so we won’t get new results.

Theory in Use and Espoused Theory

Recently, I have seen several references to Chris Argyris in the Agile community. Argyris is an American business theorist who developed a way of explaining organizational behavior called Action Science. In Action Science he describes two simultaneous mental models that make it difficult to create change in an organization. The first is our Espoused Theory. Our Espoused Theory describes the model we say we use to describe how we act (or how we would like others to think we act). Our Theory in Use is one we actually use to make decisions. From a personal standpoint, the Theory in Use is complicated for a number of reasons. It is shaped by how we are participating in the situation. I might respond differently to my brother (who I work with on clients) then I would respond to a client. It is shaped by the threat we feel in the situation. I might respond differently when the situation is under control then I do when I feel threatened. This becomes even more interesting when we are dealing with organization’s and changing the mental models that shape organizational behavior.  Making changes in the stories we tell about why we behave the way we do won’t change our decision. A key to making change is to intervene at the Theory in Use.

Model I-Inhibiting Double Loop Learning

Argyris tells us that when human beings deal with issues that are embarrassing or threatening, their reasoning and actions conform to a model called Model I. Trying to make change in a Model I organization is difficult because you are dealing with their Espoused Theory. It is neither rewarding nor safe for them to explore or actually change their mental models and decision rules – so there is a wide gap between their Espoused Theory and their Theory in Use. The defensive behavior in Model I organization’s create a vicious make this divide even greater. Model I organizations have the following values and supporting behaviors.

  1. Define goals and try to achieve them. Participants rarely develop mutual definition of purposes – nor are they open to altering their perception of the task. Participants plan actions secretly and  and manipulate others to  agree with a their definition of the situation.
  2. Maximize winning and minimize losing. Participants feel that once they have decided on their individual goals it is sign of weakness to change them.
  3. Minimize generating or expressing negative feelings. Expressing or permitting others to express feelings is a bad strategy. Participants unilaterally protect themselves.
  4. Be rational. Interactions are objective discussions of the issues.Participants withhold the truth, suppress feelings, and offer false sympathy to others.

Model I behavior results in organizational defensive behaviors that block exploring underlying mental models and the resulting maturity that arises. Most organizations exhibit Model I values and behavior most of the time.

Model II-Encouraging Double Loop Learning

Argyris describes a much more productive type of organization that he calls Model II. In a Model II organization, it is safe and rewarding to the participants to explore underlying mental models and decision rules. Model II organizations have the following values and supporting behaviors.

  1. Valid information. Participants design environments where accurate information is shared and underlying assumptions can be openly explored.
  2. Free and informed choice. The participants jointly control tasks and focus on collaborative problem solving.
  3. Internal commitment. The participants jointly protect each other in learning and risk taking. Mental models and decision rules are jointly explored.

Model II behavior results in organizational behavior that enhances underlying learning. High maturity organizations exhibit Model II values and behavior.

Kanban and Action Science

So, if we want double loop learning (and we do), we want to promote Model II values and behavior. That means we need to create an environment where:

  • valid information is apparent
  • it is safe to explore underlying assumptions
  • participants are actively involved in controlling their tasks and collaborative problem solving
  • the participants are focused on a bigger goal
  • we can compare the result of our change actions with the actual outcomes

Kanban explicitly creates this environment. The board, the tasks on the board, and the metrics make valid information readily available. The visualization of the work helps make it safe to explore underlying assumptions. You are no longer looking to cast blame, you are looking for an understanding of the system – it is depersonalized. The participants are involved in defining the board, the policies, and participate in problem solving on the board. The board and the focus on reducing lead time, reducing defects, and the policies changes the focus of the team to the bigger goal. Finally, the data available to us helps us make sure the improvements we attempt are achieved and sustained.

Kanban and Maturity

Chris Argyris’s intervention method for developing Model II behavior is simple. Map the system, internalize the map, test the model, invent solutions, intervene and study the impact. Kanban puts a simple, actionable model of this in place. Even better than the single cycle intervention model, the Kanban cycle supports continuous learning that the team internalizes. Argyris’s model gives us some insight into why Kanban teams are consistently achieving double-loop learning and rapid maturity.

Further Reading

Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1996) Organizational learning II: Theory, method and practice, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

Argyris, C. (1993) Knowledge for Action: A guide for overcoming barriers to organizational change, San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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