Moving Mountains

I was listening to Alan Robinson present last week at the Lean Systems Summit about the power of “small ideas.”   Alan wondered aloud why so many organizations continue to pursue the few million dollar ideas while small ideas account for more than 75% of the innovation outcome.

I reflected on a conversation I’d had several weeks earlier with a client, call him Bob,  who was struggling with his Lean journey.

Bob remarked, “I can’t see how we’ll ever make a significant improvement.  Doing anything around here is like moving mountains.”
“How would you go about moving that mountain?” I asked.
“I’d blast,” Bob smiled.

I think that is the answer to Alan Robinson’s question:  When presented with an obstacle, managers are trained to “blast.”   We are paid to get things done; the bigger the obstacle, the more explosives.

The challenge with Lean transformation is that given a choice between dynamite and a large group of people with shovels, most managers will choose the former to get the result.  The results we target are tangible and necessary for the organization’s health: QCD, dramatic Quality, Cost and Delivery improvement are the promise of Lean.  Why not cordon off the area to be improved, and ask the troops with the shovels to step to a safe area while we send in our special forces to blast away? The troops can return afterward to clean-up.   Sound familiar?

“Why would you blast?” I asked Bob.
He responded,  “Because our management says it needs to be done by Friday.  They’re looking for a report out then with hard numbers for results.”
“And would one of those results be level of employee participation?” I asked.
“Not really.”  Bob replied.

The problem with this approach is that if we treat the workplace like a war zone, employees will run for cover when they see change approaching.  “Keep a low profile, and they leave you alone,” one employee confided in me.  When that occurs we have failed to achieve the most important, if intangible, result: employee creativity.   The 75% of innovation that Alan Robinson is describing actually requires many people with shovels.

How many folks in your organization are shoveling?   Let me hear from you.


BTW- Alan Robinson will be at our October 5-6 NortheastShingo Conference.

4 thoughts on “Moving Mountains

  1. Karen Wilhelm (@leanreflect)

    Yesterday I was at our town’s little water park, which is surrounded by sand play areas and a large hill (to the under-8 crowd). With all our rain lately, a puddle and small trail of water had started at the top. Gradually, a line of kids accumulated, each running with a bucket containing whatever water they hadn’t spilled on the way, carrying it to the top. You could see the furrow deepening as they played. Maybe a problem for the park maintenance staff, but if they had wanted the “mountain” removed, those kids could have played their way to making it a lot smaller in a few days or weeks. Unless their enthusiasm was discouraged, that is.

  2. Jeremy

    Yes, O.L.D., that’s how management thinks. That blasting to be carried out can be done with a phone call from the office. His boss can visualize dramatic progress and a quick conclusion: “We can close the books on that one!”. All much ‘easier’ than “Managing By Wandering About”, which needs a hardhat, and remembering peoples’ names, and is unpredictable as to time and space….

  3. Christian Paulsen

    Interesting analogy. The big blast will get quick results but could have some unintended consequences. Sending three-quarters of the work force to dig with shovels would be more precise. Those who are closer to the action would see which dirt needs to move and what is already in the right place.


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