I’ve been asked countless times by Lean change leaders, “How can we change a system that’s so rigid and entrenched?” Here’s an allegorical and hopefully not too arcane answer that occurred to me recently:
An early wintery storm caught us by surprise this year. I had just mowed the lawn days earlier, and most trees had not even shed their fall colors. October snows usually melt on contact with still-warm surfaces, we thought, and by sundown on Saturday, flurries left only a light coating on leaves and lawn. There were warnings on the evening news, but no sense of impending doom at our house. The maple, oak and pine trees that ringed our yard were decades old, and had withstood pounding winter nor’easter winds many times before. And there was not even much wind with this October storm, just snowflakes. So we retired for the evening.
Several hours passed. We slept as snowflakes quietly accumulated, and deepened on the leaves and branches of our sturdy trees. At 3:00 a.m., we were awakened by a low cracking noise. In an instant, whoosh, a large oak limb fell from a height of 30 feet to our backyard deck. We heard the thud as it struck the deck but could hardly see where it landed. By this time the silent snowfall had gathered momentum. More snowflakes, more often. Each flake dropped straight down on this windless night, and lighted on another, the snow relentlessly weighing down the sturdy trees.
Soon after the first downed limb, another thud followed, this time in the front yard. The top of an oak tree had split and tumbled onto some white pines, which softened the blow, but also altered our view to the street as branches were lopped off. The intensity of the snowfall was increasing, and it was hard to see the yard even with a spotlight shining on the front driveway. What we could see, however, was a large Norway maple tree teetering precariously over our driveway. The top of the tree was tilted like the Tower of Pisa by the time we saw it, and seconds later its trunk snapped at a height of about six feet, dropping it across our driveway. I thought to myself, “I’d been planning to remove that tree anyway.”
Now there were limbs cracking and trees tumbling together in several different places, as if a tipping point had been exceeded. One by one the snowflakes had landed, none by themselves having a perceptible impact But together, they were changing the landscape.
How do you change a system that’s so rigid and entrenched? We may think it will take an avalanche, but really what’s needed is a gradual accumulation of snowflakes.