Tag Archives: change management

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.

Clearing the Bar

clearingthebarWhen I was fifty years younger and fifty pounds lighter I tried my hand at pole vaulting, a peculiar track and field event that involves running at full speed with a heavy pole (at that time still rigid aluminum) in hand, planting the pole at the last second with jarring force on the body, hurling your feet overhead at just the right moment in order to maximize upward momentum and finally, pushing off from the pole as it reaches vertical and squeaking past the crossbar without knocking it off.   A successful vault involves a great deal of technical and tactical knowledge as well as strict choreography and constant practice.  These things I learned from a little bit of book study and much trial and error.  In the end, the game is the best teacher.

But what about the coach’s role in developing my ability?

One afternoon as I was practicing, my coach happened by to watch my form.  I raced down the runway towards the bar, planted the pole and aimed my feet towards the heavens.  Unfortunately, they hit the crossbar on the way up.  With a clang the bar landed in the pit just before me.  What happened next has stuck in my mind as a humorous, but perhaps instructive anecdote:  I turned to my coach, who was standing just above me to the side of sawdust pit and said instinctively, “What did I do wrong, coach?”  He stared at me thoughtfully for a moment and then replied emphatically, “You didn’t clear the bar!”

I laughed out loud at his response and I still laugh today when I think about his answer.  Granted, there are many events in track and a coach will not likely be expert with all of them, but it seemed like he should have been able to provide greater insight.  He had watched my vault intently, but could offer no guidance how to improve it.

So what does this have to do with Lean?  How much should today’s managers-become-coaches know about the details of Lean?  I often hear them demur, “I don’t want to get into the weeds.”   Could that be an excuse or are the details really for someone else – perhaps a lean specialist – to understand.  Many years ago, a fellow manager, a good friend, offered to me what I think he thought was a compliment:  “Continuous improvement is really your thing, Bruce.  My thing is management.”  This seemed to me to be a perverse division of labor.   Granted, a manager cannot be omniscient or omnipresent, but when new learning is required, we should not think we are exempt from study.  Whether a track coach or a business coach, there is a technical side to our work, which “granular” as it might be, will make us better coaches if we understand it even modestly.   If we want to help our employees ‘clear the bar’, we’d best invest in our own learning first.

How is your coaching?  Are you above the fray, delegating Lean learning to someone else or are you personally developing your own skills in order to be a better coach?   Please share a comment.


BTW:   Sign up here for my next free webinar, “Tea Time with Toast Dude.”  The topic will be “Killer Measures”, traditional measures that can derail your lean implementation.  Hope you can join me on Tuesday, December 10 from 3:00 – 3:40 p.m. EST.  Read more & register.