Are You a Right-Brain or Left-Brain Thinker?

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Roger Sperry, a Nobel Prize winner, initiated the study of the relationship between the brain’s right and left hemispheres. Sperry found that the left half of the brain tends to function by processing information in an analytical, rational, logical, sequential way. The right half of the brain tends to function by recognizing relationships, integrating and synthesizing information, and arriving at intuitive insights. In other words, the left side of your brain deals with a problem or situation by collecting data, making analyses, and using a rational thinking process to reach a logical conclusion. The right side of your brain approaches the same problem or situation by making intuitive leaps to answers based on insights and perceptions. The left brain tends to break information apart for analysis, while the right brain tends to put information together to synthesize a whole picture.

Research into the brain’s function and individuals’ brain dominance was further enhanced by Ned Hermann, the former manager of management education at General Electric’s Management Development Institute. Herman developed a brain-dominance profile instrument to help people assess the manner in which they use their brains. Hermann’s research suggests that people in various professions tend to be either leftbrain or right-brain oriented. Managers, for instance, tend to be left-brain dominant, focusing on organizing, structuring, and controlling situations. Social workers tend to be right-brain dominant, drawing on their ability to relate to emotions to achieve insights about situations.

Quality and brain dominance
The quality field, by its very nature, covers a broad range of concepts, tools, and techniques. Some of these concepts, tools, and techniques are clearly in the left brain arena, such as using statistical tools and organizing plans to ensure the quality of projects and processes. Others are in the right-brain arena, such as using relationship diagrams to solve problems, forming teams to analyze systems, and applying intuitive concepts, such as zero defects.

With such a broad range of concepts and approaches, it should come as no surprise when quality professionals become engaged in rather spirited disputes over how to achieve quality and even over the very meaning of the term. Left-brain quality professionals might be exasperated with their right-brain colleagues because they seem to lack an appreciation for the careful use of data. Right-brain professionals might be irritated with their left-brain colleagues for being too rigid in their thinking or too slow to grasp the causes of problems. Of course, both of these positions are relative to how the individual processes information and defines quality and neither position is right or wrong.

The dichotomy between left-brain and right-brain approaches to quality permeates the entire range of quality issues, as shown in Figure 1. The basic definition of quality, the methods for achieving it, and the approach to solving quality-related problems all hinge on patterns of thinking and information processing that are dependant on brain dominance.

For example, there are two methods commonly used to perform root-cause analysis. One approach employs a pre-established set of questions that forces the investigator into using one of the pre-established root –cause categories. This approach typifies a left-brain thinking process that values order and systematic steps in developing a solution to a problem.

On the other hand, right-brain thinkers will approach root-cause analysis by first trying the five-whys method to find a solution. The solution might not fit any preestablished set of root-cause categories, but it works. If the five-whys method does not work, right-brain thinkers will use barrier analysis (or another tool that provides a visual image of the situation) to “see” where a barrier existed. Another example can be seen in approaches taken by quality auditors. For leftbrain thinkers, the...
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