I’m Against It!

A recent viewing of a Marx Brothers film caused me to reflect on one of the questions I’m frequently asked, “How do you deal with people that are against Lean?”

i'magainstitMy stock response is to quote Shigeo Shingo’s advice that “99% of objection is cautionary,” that is, persons who appear to vigorously object to Lean are really just asking for more information. I confess that, while this answer puts a positive spin on objection, depending upon who is doing the objecting, it doesn’t really answer the question.

For example, very early along in my TPS discovery process while I was away from the plant for a week’s vacation, two of my fellow middle managers, armed with apocalyptic predictions about employee empowerment, took advantage of my absence to make an end run to the corner office. Upon my return, our CEO confronted me: “I understand that you’re turning all of the decision-making over to the employees,” he said.

In another context, I might have taken his words as a compliment, but given the tenor of our organization at the time and the stern visage before me, I quickly understood that I’d been thrown under the bus.   A practiced counterpuncher, I was fortunately able to respond with a few compelling examples of decisions made by frontline employees to make improvements or solve problems, thus diffusing my adversaries’ arguments.  I thought to myself, “Thank goodness I didn’t take a two-week vacation. I might have been fired by then.“

There are several points worth noting here.

  • First, had our CEO occasionally visited the front lines, he would have been in touch with what was actually happening and would not have been vulnerable to the emotional arguments of naysayers.   Unfortunately, too often in the early stages in Lean transformation, the CEO is only passively involved.
  • Secondly, at least some of the time, factual arguments will trump emotional ones. The top manager usually has no ax to grind with any department or division; his/her interests lie in the prosperity of the entire organization.
  • Third, middle managers are often troubled by a perceived loss of authority among their direct reports. If front line employees are empowered, does that make the managers less powerful?
  • Fourth, middle managers may resist a change that they perceive is a threat to their turfs.   For example, “quality at the source” may be seen as an attempt to eliminate the inspection department. Or Kanban may be perceived as a threat to production scheduling.   If improvement implies organizational change to their turf, territorial imperative kicks in.
  • Finally, early Lean successes will sometimes create professional jealousy. Managers may perceive the rising star of a lean leader as a threat to their own advancement. For these managers, the response to the change leader’s ideas is likely to be “whatever it is, I’m against it.”

To be sure each of the concerns above could be characterized as “cautionary.” At a later point in the Lean journey, many managers will come to realize that their early concerns were horse feathers; organizations and individuals do change — for the better.   But in the earlier going, change leaders need to be mindful of and responsive to managerial objections. How we do that is the topic of my October 14 Tea Time with Toast Guy Webinar.

O.L.D.

Alert: Our 10th Annual Northeast Lean Conference is now less than a month away. I hope to see many of my readers there as the theme, “Putting People First,” is recurrent in the O.L.D. annuls.   For the last four years my posts have dealt primarily with management’s responsibility to create an environment that’s favorable to problem solving and continuous improvement – and that too is the theme of this year’s conference. I hope to see you all there!

BTW: Attend my next free Webinar next Tuesday, September 9, and you could win a FREE registration to our 10th Annual Northeast Lean Conference. The topic: “Getting Suppliers Involved – Do’s and Don’ts.”  Register here.

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