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Resistance to Lean Methods

You make the decision to implement lean methods in your organization. You've read the books and have an understanding of the basics. You have hard statistical data documenting the benefits of lean. As advised, you've brought in an outside "Lean Sensei", selected and internal "Change Agent, and selected members for your "Lean Implementation Team". You've got all of your ducks in a row so to speak. You are fired up and look forward to announcing the coming lean transformation. You schedule a meeting to share your decision and excitement with all of your associates, hourly and salary associates.

As soon as you make the announcement the conference room is filled with a silent tension followed shortly after by a flood of grumblings and angry outbursts. The anger continues on the work floor. Production suffers, attendance drops, and it is painfully obvious that workers are de-motivated, anxious, angry, resistant, and rightfully so. You are baffled by the response but the resistance to lean is not without reason. Consider some typical approaches of lean implementation and you'll see the employees response is justified.

Common Lean Mistakes

Unfortunately, many business leaders believe "lean" essentially means to do more with less. That definition, in their opinion includes drastic downsizing. They feel lean equates to cutting the workforce while keeping the same level of production. This is not a proper definition of lean nor is it a correct approach. Lean, roughly defined, is the endless pursuit of eliminating waste in the value stream while giving customers exactly what they want, exactly when they want it, and at a price they are willing to pay. Where in that definition does it indicate layoffs? If a layoff is needed it was needed before you made a decision to go lean. If a reduction in workforce is inevitable do it prior to a lean transition. Sure, jobs will be redesigned and some employees may be freed up to do other things. However, a lean transformation often creates new functions. These freed up employees can be utilized in other ways. Assemble a kaizen team that spends each day identifying improvement opportunities. After all, lean is a commitment to continual improvement. A commitment to lean is also a commitment to all employees. These employees will also be assuming a great deal of the leadership responsibilities as well. If a workforce reduction is inevitable there are better ways of selecting who will be cut from the organization.

This history of improperly handled lean transformations has created a fear of lean. How can you possibly expect top performance of employees if they are living in fear. A properly handled lean transition will not result in fear.

Tips for Reducing the Fear of a Lean Transformation

Although it is beyond the scope of this article to address every step of a successful lean transformation I will point out a few helpful tips. First of all, do not work with a consultant that insists a lean transition will require ongoing layoffs. This approach truly is an indicator that the consultant is not a lean expert. Consider the organizational hierarchy and what it implies. The typical traditional hierarchy is presented in Figure 1A:

FIGURE 1A: Traditional Structure

Organizational Food Chain
Top Upper Management
Middle Management
1st Line Supervision
Bottom Hourly Employees

Of course, this does not apply to all organizations but it is a fair representation of typical traditional structure of an organization. Compare this to a typical lean organization presented in Figure 1B:

FIGURE 1B: Typical Lean Structure

Organizational Food Chain
Top Customers
Cross-functional teams
Value Stream Managers
Bottom Upper Management

A lean transformation turns the structure upside down while placing the customer on top. Layers of power are flattened or removed and all management personnel become support staff to the highly empowered hourly employees. Management personnel must ask employees on a daily basis "what can we do to help you satisfy the customer?". "How can we remove obstacles?" This concept is not always welcome however, it is essential in a lean environment. Therefore, if a consultant implies a need for ongoing reduction of hourly employees send him/her packing. Otherwise employees will never buy-in and this will be devastating to the organization. Lean does not = mean.

Despite your best efforts and commitment to customer and employee you are still likely to encounter resistance. The phrase itself (lean) often creates fear simply because employees assume lean = continued layoffs. There are many things you can do to reduce fear and increase buy-in and trust but many go beyond the scope of this article. One helpful tip, however, would be to avoid using the term lean. There is a growing fear of the term. You can apply the true lean approaches yet label it differently. Announce that you will be implementing "Strategic Process Improvement" (SPI). Same processes and benefits without the immediate fear of ongoing job loss. This is not meant to be an attempt to deceive. We are only avoiding the preconceived misunderstanding of lean.

Additionally, don't add to the fear of this methodology by constantly cutting heads in order to go lean. Must you reduce the workforce? Possibly. This is only because you were overstaffed and inefficient to begin with. If you must downsize, do it immediately prior to announcing your new SPI approach. At that time of announcing the new plans you must also announce your commitment to the remaining employees.


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