The Lean Brain: Overcoming Learned Helplessness Through Visualization

May 23 / Tonianne DeMaria
Among the primary albeit least understood principles of the Toyota Production System (TPS), progenitor of Lean, is the concept of “respect for people / humanity.” If you consider Toyota’s contention that the greatest waste in an organization is the waste of human potential, respect then - for the worker’s existing skills along with their desire to contribute and grow as professionals - isn’t simply a nice-to-have, it’s intrinsic to humane management and by extension, thriving, successful organizations.
In order for individuals to perform at their peak, teams need to optimize in a way that reinforces its members have agency over their outcomes; that they can contribute, challenge and be challenged, and flourish. Part and parcel of that optimization is creating systems that ensure one particular behavioral pattern is kept at bay: learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is a psychological response whereby repeated lack of agency or recall of past failures leaves a person thinking they no longer have control over events in their life.  A common side effect of learned helplessness in the workplace is lack of motivation and initiative, and a reliance upon being told what to do.  

Learned Helplessness

With its origins in trauma and depression research, “learned helplessness” was identified in the 1960s through a series of experiments in animal behavior. Observing how canines reacted to a succession of prolonged shocks, psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier discovered that when finally given the freedom to avoid aversive stimuli, some dogs continued to assume they were powerless, instead choosing to accept their fate rather than escape it. 

Replacing shocks with loud noises, later studies tested Seligman’s and Maier’s theory on humans. When exposed repeatedly to negative stimuli - even when afforded the ability to control their situation - some participants likewise perceived themselves as having a lack of agency and as such, similarly expressed passive behavior.


Neuroscience teaches us that in addition to myriad health issues such as heightened risk of heart attack and stroke, chronic exposure to stress and fear weakens our prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC governs our executive functions, higher level thinking such as planning, prioritization, decision making, problem solving - skills integral to productivity and innovation, and fundamental to the 21st Century knowledge worker’s toolkit.

In our consulting work through Modus Cooperandi along with our teaching at Modus Institute Jim Benson and I have heard and seen the ramifications of work-related trauma manifested in countless ways.

Through language such as:

  • No one cares, why should I?
  • I can’t fix it so why bother?
  • Failure is inevitable. I’ll pass.
  • Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. 
  • XYZ tried that once and it went badly - I’m certainly not chance-ing it. 

That final statement attests to learned helplessness’ ability to inhibit one’s behavior as a form of second-hand trauma.)Along with the following maladaptive behaviors:

  • Apathy / avoidance / lack of motivation
  • Aggression / negativity
  • Anxiety / depression
  • Frustration/ self-esteem issues
  • General malaise / overwhelm
  • Zero facility for risk
  • Depleted cognitive ability
  • Inability to remember, learn

Helplessness leads to hopelessness creating a vicious cycle and a roadblock to success. 

Building Transparent, Collaborative Systems

In Modus Institute’s Lean Agile Visual Management (LAVM) program, which helps individuals and teams build transparent, collaborative, and by extension humane work systems via brain-friendly triggers and tools, one student shared:
This learned helplessness is so prevalent in the circles I'm working in now too - a system that assumes initiative and ideation comes from the top down and nothing anybody a few hierarchy layers down decides could matter. A "why bother" attitude is the only logical reaction to living under such a system. I observed it as infantilizing folks who are otherwise wicked smart, dedicated, experienced, professionals. Trying to foster more of a collaborative environment can be met with mistrust and fear. ~ Rachelle M. Goldstein
As coping mechanisms, few can argue these trauma responses aren’t logical reactions to change and risk. But they’re certainly not healthy for the individual, sustainable for the team, or complementary to the organization’s need to innovate and remain competitive. As another LAVM student observed:
I learned about this in Social Work school decades ago, never thought of applying to work situations. But there it is in my team. People are just holding on until retirement or severance, having learned that things never really change and the more you highlight what isn't working and request a specific change, the more you realize how much is totally out of your control. ~ Kimberly Smith
They are however, addressable. Especially in a COVID-reshaped world where distributed teams are commonplace, and building cultures of transparency, safety, and inclusion are facilitated by the ubiquity of shared visualization tools.

Enter…the obeya. 

The Obeya

Another element fundamental to Lean and a cornerstone of continuous improvement is the concept of the "obeya.

"Obeya: (Japanese for big room): A dedicated room or location where work data and documents, metrics, relationships, communication, respect, plans, obstacles, collaboration, decision making, and problem solving can be centralized and made visual to all, and where shared understanding and momentum towards goals can regularly occur. 

With its popularization likewise linked to Toyota, the concept of the obeya was instrumental in the development of the Prius, as a means to take decision making beyond the conference room, break down functional silos, and integrate talent from across the organization.

As our friends at Obeya Association put it, the obeya is "where strategy meets execution."

Further expanding on this, co-founder of Project Lean Enterprise Michael Ballé writes:

An obeya is clearly a tool of teamwork: helping managers in various functions solve problems across their borders. As part of a project or management team, what the obeya should give you is a clear idea of what your colleagues are working on and why (as well as why they think what they’re doing is helping) so that you can see for yourself where your own efforts help them or cause them additional trouble.

But let's face it, given the recent mass shift to telework, most of us don't have the luxury of shared walls let alone the space for a fully-realized obeya. 

Or do we?

Developing The Virtual Obeya

At Modus, we've always been distributed, and so we've relied on some semblance of a virtual obeya for well over a decade. We built ours out of necessity (first via whiteboard tools like Miro and Mural and now, in the more dedicated and robust iObeya - which I will explore in future posts), and we did so simply by solving problems in support of our big picture, our purpose. This resulted in an obeya that not only helps us manage, collaborate on, and remain aligned in our work, but likewise helps us identify and solve tomorrow's potential problems - and solve them collaboratively - before they become problems at all.

Full disclosure: this did not happen overnight. Our current iteration took us 13 years to achieve. But we began with that first problem our then 2-person organization needed to solve: Jim and I living and working 2700 miles and 3 time zones apart.

Fast forward to today. With staff and contractors and faculty spread across the globe, once hidden information is presented in an easy to access and digestible way. Visualizing the needs of the individual and the team (what they’re doing, where they are stuck, who needs help, whose at capacity) along with the expectations for the project (project charters, goals, timelines, value streams, strategy-, execution-, and improvement-related documents etc.) normalizes and presents in one place all the information people need to get their jobs done. Seeing the system in action confers a sense of trust while assuring a sense of agency, preventing even the most nascent members of the team from painfully invoking the learned helplessness rallying cry Just tell me what to do. It likewise affords people psychological safety and the related confidence to contribute, challenge, and act, no matter what past traumatic work experiences they might have suffered.

The obeya. It’s humane work in action.


Curious about what other office maladies an obeya can put an end to? Pay attention to this space for more on the psychology of work and the power of visualization.