Overcoming Lean Hesitancy with Respect for People

If you have a position that involves leading change, then at some point you’ve had to deal with people being a little hesitant. This is very true for those of us who have taken a leadership role in leading Lean, since we often are trying to influence fundamental changes to how companies operate. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said “The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change”. Now that was way back in 535 B.C., so the world and its population have had lots of time to get used to the idea, and yet we STILL struggle with its implementation. Why?

Why are people hesitant to engage with Lean?

In my experience, when someone is very much against change (we call them Dissenters), it’s usually one of three things:

1. They are afraid;

2. They need to verify his/her worth;

3. They are a victim.

cheerful1We’ve all encountered these folks in some way, shape or form. Each one, however, requires a different approach in order to engage change successfully. Below are the techniques we’ve developed to deal with each style so that the organization can move forward.

Drive out Fear

1. If a dissenter is afraid of change, it’s sometimes because he or she is afraid of the ultimate outcome.

At a large aerospace manufacturer here in CT, we were putting in a new piece of equipment that would drop our cycle times by up to 90%. This new equipment would be doing the job of two employees, both of whom had done the same job (hand deburring with pneumatic die grinders) for more than 40 years each. Both people had had multiple carpal tunnel surgeries on both wrists, so to us, this was a Lean home run. The new process was going to be faster, safer, and cheaper… so what wasn’t to love? We thought the employees would be excited not to have to sit all day and deburr parts anymore. But were we wrong. As soon as the news of the new machine hit the floor, these two folks got pretty upset. We assured them that no one would be losing their job because of this machine, but rather that their work content would just change a little, and for the better. This helped a bit, but the apprehension was still palpable. In truth, they thought we were lying to them. It was only until after the machine was installed, they had been trained and standard work put into place did they settle into the new routine and feel at ease with the change. Oh – and no one lost their job.

When dealing with folks who are afraid of change it’s important to explain – up front – what the goals are and how they will be achieved. People like to have information, even if they don’t get to make decisions based upon it. It helps them understand what’s expected of them, and also what they can expect once the change is in place. Without this, they are flying blind, and that’s a very uncomfortable position for many to be in.

Include them in the Process of Lean

2. A dissenter who needs to verify his/her worth is driven by pride. They’re often the “been there, done that” crowd. They’ve seen previous initiatives come and go, and have developed a “this too shall pass” mentality. To them, everything is a management fad that is bound to fail, eventually. Many times, managers and change agents write these folks off, which only reinforces that person’s position. Without these folks’ investment, your change initiative has little chance of success. At best you might get their compliance, but that rarely comes and never without a hidden cost. Certainly, this isn’t their best efforts, which is what we really want. Instead, engage these people early and often. Many times, we find that no one has ever stopped and talked with these folks about their job.. what they like, what they don’t like, what gets in their way or even made an effort to get to know them. In fact, Gallup surveys support this view. In one recent finding, only 40% (less than half!) of people reported that “anyone at works cares about me”. That’s pretty bleak. By taking the small step of showing that you actually care about the employee and their work, you’ll be building a relationship based upon trust and respect, which for these folks (and really everyone to some extent) is very important. People do their best work when they feel heard, valued, respected and trusted.

Respect for (all) People

3. Sometimes, people just aren’t going to want to engage with change, regardless of what we do. When someone chooses this position, they can be impossible to engage with. A word of caution if someone seems to be in this category: We’re advocates of meeting people where they are, and that place is different for each person. It takes a lot of work to encourage people to embrace change, and that’s especially true with folks with this particular mindset. There have been plenty of times when someone who’s initially been very resistant has turned out to be one of Lean’s biggest fans, so we really need to proceed cautiously and give people chances to “learn to see”. However, just as important is knowing when these people are undermining your Lean initiatives. There are instances when folks will never see the vision, and will actively fight against practicing Lean and organizational change. They can not only tank individual Lean initiatives, but they may also be highly discouraging to others from engaging with Lean as well. This is dangerous, especially if your organization is new to Lean. It’s hard enough to get people to engage with change without having people bad-mouthing it, so don’t waste your time trying to convince them. In those cases, we have to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations with folks. Letting dissention take hold and propagate is a sure-fire way to watch Lean initiatives crash and burn. It leads to a lot of wasted time and effort, especially for those who chose to come along on the journey in the first place. Respect for People means not allowing a few rotten apples to spoil the bushel.

No matter how you approach it, engaging with Lean and change is hard. People can be hesitant, and for lots of good reasons. It’s up to us as Lean practitioners to be “Cheerfully Persistent” in our pursuit of making things better. It’s important to stay excited and positive about what change can deliver. Once folks see that you cannot be disheartened, they’ll (hopefully) abandon the Dissenter Approach and begin to understand, like Heraclitus did, that change is inevitable. Better to be a part of it and help shape the future versus letting it happen “to” us.. and if we engage correctly, together we can achieve amazing things!

New England Lean Consulting is a full service Lean partner serving Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. We offer comprehensive Training programs as well as direct Consulting services. Contact us at for more information.