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Lean manufacturing implementation: What happens when employees refuse?

Dear Mr. Lean,

I recently hired a consultant to help us implement lean manufacturing in our facility. I found your site when searching for information on employee resistance to lean because the resistance I see here is very extreme. Employees are resisting so fiercely that the consultants are no longer in control. I know that employees should be empowered but should we allow employees unrestricted power to a point where they are running the show? I have attended most of the training sessions and at times feel sorry for the consultant and trainer. Our CEO is dead set on going lean and I report directly to him. My reports to him so far haven't been met with a smile. I support the decision to go lean but I doubt it will happen. Any suggestions? 

Anonymous Submission October, 2005: Posted with consent

Empowerment and insubordination: Know where to draw the line.

Many of my peers and even mentors in the past have argued this point with me. Some feel we should, at all times, focus 100% on building relationships with peers, superiors, clients, and trainees. Others feel you should focus 100% on the task at hand with no concern for relationships. From experience and also my professional opinion I feel effective consultants and leaders are those that find the point directly in the center. You must also be able to slide back and forth on that plane to adjust to the given situation but you never go entirely to either end.

Yes, we do want employees to be empowered but they must also be trained. If we simply hand out decision-making power we cannot be certain that every single employee is immediately capable of making great business decisions. This requires training. Often as a business leader or a consultant you must clearly state and define the goals. Once the goals are stated and clarified employees should then be encouraged to assist in making decisions to reach those goals. However, you must still monitor progress and keep the team on track. A transformation to lean techniques does bring about resistance. That is to be expected, but you absolutely cannot allow resistance to bring a lean transformation to a complete stop. You should plan for and find methods to work through resistance. There are a multitude of ways to turn resistance to buy-in.

Lean Manufacturing Tips: Constancy of Purpose

Just as so wisely stated by Deming, you need "constancy of purpose". If your purpose is to better serve customers by implementing lean manufacturing techniques that purpose must be consistent throughout the entire organization. Everyone should be encouraged and given the opportunity to support that purpose. Those who flat out refuse to support that purpose should not be a part of the organization. Within a couple of training sessions your consultant should have made that clear. The consultant is not only there to teach lean techniques but to make the transition happen while addressing resistance. Of course the consultant should aim for 100% employee buy-in but that's not always possible. Keep in mind that the true focus in lean methodology is the customer. Implementing lean manufacturing methods are ultimately an effort to better serve the customer. Employees do not have the option of deciding that your company will not try to better serve your customers. Decision-making power is encouraged, but employees are also paid a wage to help your company serve customers. Never should employees be given enough space to lose that focus. It happens often. Employees begin to focus more on themselves than the customer. In your case you need to quickly drive home the fact that the customers are the most important part of your organization. Yes, employees are highly valuable and should always be recognized as such. However, employees that do not put the customer first have no business in your business.

You need to have a talk with your consultant/trainers. Explain that he/she must make it clear to the employees that your goal, implementing lean methods, is not optional. You are asking employees to participate and preparing them for the new system. Explain also to the employees that you want them to be successful and that you want them to offer input; but make it absolutely clear that you did not bring the team together with a consultant for the purpose of allowing them to decide if the company is going lean. Putting your foot down and making it clear that the company absolutely is going lean is probably necessary at this point. You shouldn't expect grins and cheers of joy but do not budge! Sadly, your company might lose an employee or two but that comes with the territory. The remainder of the employees will quickly learn the difference between empowerment and refusing to accept company goals. In the long run employees are much better off and happier in a lean environment. Empowerment means giving employees the decision-making power to help achieve company goals. We always want the best for employees but anchor draggers will pull a lean transformation to a halt. If, after your announcement, you lose a handful of employees, promise four things to the remaining team members:

  • We are going to implement lean methods.
  • Employees will be encouraged to assist with this transition.
  • We are committed to improving the work environment for all employees who make a contribution to this effort.
  • We will no longer allow anchor draggers to work here.

Unfortunately, your consultants are too people-oriented; enough so that he/she has sacrificed the company's goals for the sake of being "liked". The task, implementing lean manufacturing, must be given more attention. Schedule a meeting with the consultant. Your CEO should be present as well. Describe to the CEO the same problems you have pointed out to me. Go on to explain that you want to meet with the consultant and the CEO to voice concerns and to demand that he/she, as a consultant, accomplishes what they are paid to do. You should also ask the CEO to sit through the next few training sessions to show visual support.

I, personally, would look elsewhere for a lean consultant/trainer. This person has most likely lost the respect of your employees and they are not taking him/her seriously. There are other consultants. Typically, successful lean consultants are known for making things happen and getting the job done rather than being overpowered by resistance. This transformation may very well be the most difficult part of your career. Successful lean transformations require a delicate balance between empowering, rewarding, challenging, and the occasional swift kick.

Put the consultant on the spot. Demand that he/she performs. Put the team in the right direction and solicit their input. Cut loose the anchors. You point out the destination (lean) then let the team decide how to get there. You do not ask them if they want to go and your consultant shouldn't be allowing the team to decide the destination for the company and the customers! Our destination is 100% customer satisfaction through lean methods. Hop on board and help us get there or get off the ship. The presence of your CEO in the training sessions will likely turn this effort around. Keep me informed on your progress. I am interested to find out how you handle this and what the results are. Good luck! 



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