Intuition revisited – implications for process improvement and Lean Six Sigma (Part 2 of 3 blogs)

Intuition has an important role in process improvement

In a previous blog “The problem with relying on intuition for process improvement and decision making” I emphasized the problems with, rather than the opportunities for intuition.

However, as Gary Klein(1) points out, the analytical techniques practiced in Lean Six Sigma also have their shortcomings.  A point also often highlighted to me by participants in process improvement workshops or Kaizen events.

Some of the infrastructure created in Lean Six Sigma and other process improvement based programmes can also create some real barriers for intuition.

This blog follows on from part 1: “Intuition revisited – or how it could be important to a business environment”, to explore the implications of intuition to these aspects of process improvement.

The limits and strengths of intuition and analytical techniques

The potential for using intuition is limited for example where people do not yet have sufficient expertise in an area, or the area is too complex, or where people may have become ‘blinkered’ and so unable to spot important or subtle cues or patterns.

Conversely, people sometimes try to force-fit analytical techniques in situations where others have the expertise to make judgements.  The use of decision matrices, with weighted criteria can be an example of this(2).  And so some alternatives, suggested by Klein are:

  1. Use intuition first when comparing options e.g. ask people for an initial indication of their preferences – so that this can be used as a ‘sanity’ check on outcomes from an analytical approach
  2. Try a strengths vs. weaknesses approach as an alternative to weighted decision criteria
  3. Use mental simulation of how the options might play out to understand them better
  4. Look for ways to simplify the comparisons: there might be some factors that are really not important
  5. Recognise situations where the difference between options is really too small to make a difference and where it would be better to just pick one rather than continue the evaluation

Barriers to intuition created by process improvement programmes

Process improvement programmes encourage the documentation of procedures (standardized ways of working), using metrics to monitor performance, and automating routine or complex analytical tasks.

These can be extremely effective ways to streamline work, ensure that good practices are re-used, identify when timelines, quality or safety and budgets are at risk, and release people to get on with more creative activities.

However, as Klein points out, they can also not only create barriers to people using their intuition, but they can also gradually undermine what intuitive powers people have.

How to use procedures and intuition

Standardized procedures are essential in regulated environments, and invaluable in helping new staff get up to speed quickly, or as a reminder to those who carry out certain tasks infrequently.  They can also help an organisation ensure that everyone benefits from good practices in how to perform processes effectively and efficiently.  However, as Klein points out, people need to use standardized procedures in a way that keeps them alert to what they are doing, so that they can spot unexpected problems, or opportunities to do things differently i.e. fostering their intuition rather than in effect ‘turning it off’.  Such an attitude will foster continuous improvement and this is also how, as I’ve written elsewhere(3), people can maintain a dynamic between standardization and creativity.  Understanding why the procedures are as they are: the context around them, will help with this, so that this should be an integral part of teaching people about procedures.

How to use metrics and intuition

The same is true for metrics: they have a vital role to play in monitoring performance and in alerting people to risk, but too often metrics are collected for their own sake, and without people having a proper understanding of their purpose or of how to interpret them.  Again, if used intelligently and with awareness, people can foster their intuition and not only derive real value from the metrics, but spot situations when the metrics alone are not enough.

Automation and intuition

With some skill in mental mathematics, our intuition will alert us if calculations done on a calculator or in an excel spreadsheet are tens or hundreds of units out from what we would expect.  However there is a risk when routine analytical tasks, or even more complex ones have been relegated to computers that we will be under-rehearsed or have insufficient expertise to spot problems that might arise.  So where processes or parts of processes are selected for automation as a result of process improvement, we need to find ways to continue to maintain expertise and foster intuition, so that automation does indeed continue to act as a support tool rather than the master of our work!

The third blog of this series will be addressing intuition and knowledge management, and ways in which people can actively enhance their intuitive skills.


  1. The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work, by Gary Klein, Crown Business, 2004. ISBN 978-0385502894
  2. There’s more to decision making than meets the eye or…. Why we shouldn’t dismiss gut feelings.
  3. Elisabeth Goodman (2010) How Lean can bring real benefits to innovation in Pharmaceutical Research Six Sigma & Process Excellence IQ, 8th January 2010,
  4. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, enhancing team effectiveness through process improvement, knowledge and change management. Follow the links to find out about how Elisabeth Goodman and RiverRhee Consulting can help your team to work more effectively for greater productivity and improved team morale.  Read Elisabeth Goodman’s blog for more discussions on topics covered by this blog.