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Answering the Wrong Question & the Science of Thought

Sep 22, 2016 | 3 min read

In this blog from our Lean Methodology Series, we explore Dr Daniel Kahneman’s systems of thinking and how they affect performance in the workplace.

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Sometimes, when we are asked a question, we instead answer a different question.

In his fantastic book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ Dr Daniel Kahneman identifies that we have two systems of thinking.

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and often without control.

System 2 allocates attention and concentration to effortful mental activities and calculations.

System 1 is our default setting. It is constantly drinking in data and information without us even knowing. System 1 can do things like detect hostility in a voice, simple mathematics, drive a car, recognize faces and differentiate between two sounds. Sometimes our attention is required but usually not.

System 2 is for our highly diverse operations, and all require our attention. Completing complex calculations, focusing on a single voice in a noisy room, parking in a very narrow car space, filling out a tax form, things like that.

So now that we know there are two ways we think, and that System 1 is dominant in all aspects of life (home and work), let’s have a closer look at how it works.  I’m going to give you a puzzle – don’t think about the answer, just answer with the first thing that pops into your mind.

The number that came into your mind is, of course, 10. What’s interesting about this puzzle is that it evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing and wrong. If the ball is 10p, the bat must be $1.10, a total of $1.20.

The correct answer is 5. Even if you worked out the correct answer – did you immediately think of 10 and then discard it? If you did, it was System 1 answering first and then System 2 taking over once you realized it was a little harder than first glance.

Because of how we think, we tend to jump to conclusions, and we answer easier questions if we have a hard question.

Now let’s take a business example…

From experience, one of the business area’s that tends to struggle more with performance is Complaints. The simple reason for this is that complaints could be about anything. In some places, no two complaints are alike. The variation you get between cases can be huge.

One of the questions I ask managers of a complaints area is “Can you measure how long it takes to complete complaints?” The answer I always get is some variation of ‘No’. Too complicated. Too hard. Too variable. Not fair on staff. Sometimes a complaint takes 10 minutes, sometimes it takes 7 hours!

But what is really happening here is that managers are answering a slightly different question. System 1 has taken over and substituted the question for “Is it easy to measure the time it takes to complete a complaint?”

To which the answer is ‘No’. It’s not easy, but it certainly can be done.

So sometimes, we answer the wrong question and therefore get the wrong answer.

I’d highly recommend you read Thinking, Fast and Slow – it’s a fantastic book about the very science of thought.

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