Tag Archives: change agent

Addicted to Lean

One of my early lessons in leading change came at the age of 19, while working in in a program known as VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America. The lesson was this:

Leading change is marathon not a sprint. Sometimes you just have to pace yourself, give your mind and body a break and do something frivolous and fun to maintain your balance.

In 1968, racial tensions were especially high in rural Florida, and neither my fellow VISTA workers nor I were feeling the love in the segregated communities we were supporting. We were mostly a bunch of passionate, idealistic kids, referred to by many of the locals as “outside agitators.”   For some of our volunteers, the tense, resistant atmosphere triggered a response that I call ‘passion overload.’ These volunteers responded to rejection and resistance by redoubling their efforts, a tactic that sometimes worked but ultimately left them without balance in their lives.   After several months of non-stop advocacy to disinterested and sometimes hostile communities, these overly zealous VISTA volunteers began to crash. Several quit the program while others just became paralyzed by overload and stopped trying. It’s not that they cared more deeply about creating change; they were simply unable to lighten up occasionally.

I escaped those fates, mainly because I had been serendipitously paired with a VISTA partner a few years older than I who was practiced at keeping things in perspective. At the end of almost every day, David T would find an amusing distraction to put the seriousness of the moment in perspective. Bear in mind this was the pre-internet era, not even television in the rural area where we worked. We found amusement in practical jokes and makeshift competitions like tossing rotten tangelos from the grove near our shack into the lake. Somehow that frivolous diversion was a counter balance to a very bad day on the job. It took a little practice for me to join in, but after a while I got the idea.  One night, while we were competing to see who could loft a tangelo the farthest, Dave commented about a fellow VISTA worker who had just quit out of frustration: “We can’t become addicted to our work or we’ll become ineffective.”

Fifteen years after VISTA, I found myself in another outside agitator role, this time in a manufacturing company that was resisting Lean. Managers liked the status quo, and workers distrusted the new kid in town. It reminded me of Florida. In particular, I thought about David T’s lesson. Be passionate, but don’t become addicted. To be effective, change leaders must take their work very seriously, but sometimes they also need to lighten up and have some frivolous fun. In that spirit, I have collaborated with my associates at GBMP to produce another short parody video dedicated to all you serious change leaders who need to lighten up a bit. We hope it adds a little balance to you work life: Click here if you feel like you’re becoming Addicted to Lean.


By the way…

There’s still time to register for tomorrow’s free “Tea Time with the Toast Dude” webinar when I’ll discuss The Technical Side of Going to See. Starts at 3:00 pm EST and ends promptly at 3:45. Hope to “see” you there. Sign up here.

Also, for those of you who don’t already know (and for those who do, but haven’t finalized their plans), GBMP organizes an annual conference for lean practitioners from all business sectors, including healthcare. 2014 marks out 10th year celebrating the region’s lean community as we get together to learn, share, network and benchmark. We hope you are making plans to attend and getting a team together to take advantage of four exceptional keynotes, 5 concurrent tracks, more than 45 breakout sessions, a virtual plant tour, the Community of Lean Lounge and so much more. Get all of the details here.


I was at the gym this week on Martin Luther King’s birthday when a short audio of a speech by Dr. King was played on the radio. A woman standing near to me carefully remarked with political correctness, “You know, he was a great orator.” After a moment I responded, “He was a great man.” I thought to myself, Hitler was great orator, so what! Being able to stir others with words is not by itself an accomplishment. Sure, Dr. King’s great speeches didn’t hurt the cause, but his dream was about a whole lot more than just words. He had a vision of an ideal that represented the best part of human nature, and he had the courage to be a nonconformist, an agent of change who challenged a rigid status quo and fostered change by example.

In the spring of 1968, while I was an idealistic student trying to figure out what to do with myself, Dr. King was assassinated by a man representing the Hitler side of human nature. To be sure, neither Martin Luther King nor his cause was universally popular in 1968. Even today, more than four decades later, both man and cause are still maligned by some. But Dr. King persisted with the dream during his lifetime and the dream has lived on. Back in 1968, my idealism was shaken by the hatred and violence. Dr. King’s assassination, after all, was one of several in an already tumultuous decade. The message from the dark side seemed to be “Conform or we shoot you.”

In the spring of 1968, out of the desire to do something positive, I took a break from college to join VISTA, Volunteers in Service To America, a government program for confused idealists like me that was created to help break the cycle of poverty in depressed areas of the US. Perhaps it was fate that my training for VISTA landed me in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. King’s home city. It was there that I received what is probably my most valuable management training ever (see VISTA trainer Matt Timm’s advice quoted in Random Access Memories.) 

In fact, I lived in Atlanta during the training in 1968 only three blocks from Dr. King’s home. It’s hard to describe the escalated racial tension and anger that existed following the assassination, but being a lone white face in that racially segregated community was a life-changing experience. I got a glimpse of how it feels to be hated and mistrusted just because of your skin color. Particularly in the aftermath of Dr. King’s death, I had to be escorted everywhere for my protection. You could say that I had “gone to Gemba” – the real place – to grasp the problem. Living in Dr. King’s community even for a short time was more valuable than the formal orientation that VISTA provided.

As a change leader, Martin Luther King not only ‘had a dream’, but also was able to share that dream in a fashion that touched others – and ultimately changed the world for the better. For me there is a sad irony that his death was the impetus for my personal desire to change the world, even if only in a small way.

With respect for a great man,