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MANAGING THE LEAN TRANSITION:
OVERCOMING RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
By David Dixon (as printed in Fabricating and Metalworking)
Last month we set out a number of key requirements for mounting
a successful lean implementation. Above all, we suggested that the
leader of the company would have to be very knowledgeable about
lean and committed to the lean journey. We concluded that, even
given a high level of leader commitment, the journey would not be
There are four major reasons that companies fail in their effort
to implement lean: (1) They simply quit too soon; (2) they are "temporarily"
distracted; (3) they lack a reasonably stable, educable work force;
(3) lean succumbs to a high level of resistance to change in the
The first three impediments are overcome primarily through the
leader's firm commitment to lean and the careful management of priorities
and resources. Resistance to change can be more complicated and
For every successful lean implementation there are many failures,
where "failure" is defined as an implementation that never
really provides all of the benefits that were promised. The company
is "kind'a, sort'a lean," but doesn't enjoy the full economic,
performance and cultural benefits of a World Class enterprise.
When an organization successfully implements any new technology
or operational approach, it will have passed through four distinct
phases of change: (1) enabling, (2) technical transition, (3) behavioral
transition and (4) institutionalization.
As its name implies, phase 1, the enabling phase, provides the
go-ahead, the funding and the support for the initiative.
By the end of phase 2, the technical transition is complete. In
the case of lean, cellular layouts have been organized around selected
value streams. Faster setups have been engineered. Perhaps some
line (or load) balancing has been done, at least on paper. Early
efforts to standardize work will be under way, including the embedding
of error-proofing measures. Some work on 5S housekeeping will be
complete. Preventive-maintenance routines are documented and are
being followed. What is missing is the true execution of lean, as
evidenced by the smooth flow of work carried out by a skilled, knowledgeable
On completion of phase 3, operators have been fully trained and
have embraced the new technologies of lean. Old habits and practices
have been abandoned. Teams measure their own performance and respond
spontaneously to changes in mix, volume and complexity.
Phase 4, institutionalization, is complete when the values surrounding
lean have been internalized and there is no tendency to "backslide"
into the old way of doing business.
Resistance to Change
Everyone resists change. We all acknowledge this phenomenon, but
the fact is, we deal poorly with it. Virtually every failure of
a sound technical implementation of lean can be traced to people's
resistance to change.
People resist changes in the tools and approaches used in performing
their work because, consciously or unconsciously, they feel they
will in some way become less secure or more vulnerable in the work
setting. There are two primary means of overcoming resistance to
change. One way is to alleviate anxiety through careful education
and training; the other is to initiate and manage organizational
momentum so that the resistant person is "pulled" along.
Resistance to change breaks down when people understand lean techniques
completely and come to believe that they will help rather than hinder
or threaten them. Providing a thorough understanding of lean and
fostering confidence in it requires education and training. "But
we always do some education and training, don't we?" Yes, in
most of the failed lean implementations we observe there was some
education and training done—but typically not enough, and
not done well enough.
Here is the problem: adult human beings are reluctant learners.
Our minds are locked in a lifetime of pre-conceived notions and
a mindset that is not conducive to new learning. We must therefore
provide education and training that "unfreezes" the learner,
presents him with new knowledge at a time when he really needs it,
and allows him to practice new behaviors. This is a tough challenge
which is compounded by the fact that we often have to educate and
train people, throughout the organization and in the environment,
with widely varying learning needs.
It is necessary to assess the learning needs of various individuals
and groups during each phase and provide technical education in
direct response to those needs.
Unfortunately, even with a perfectly designed education and training
program, quite a few people will still resist the change. These
holdouts tend to come around when confronted with a peer group whose
majority membership is committed to the change. These conditions
can be purposefully created by organizing the training and the lean
implementation around kaizen events and other activities that demand
hands-on, collaborative application of newly acquire knowledge and
By educating and training people in teams and assigning them implementation
responsibilities in their work areas, we encourage ownership of
the concepts as well as specific projects. We cater to the adult
learner with a "learn by doing" approach, and we create
a group dynamic that works against resistance to change.
A key to this approach is to train and engage the senior management
team first! Acting as a steering team for the overall lean implementation,
leaders will work through their own resistance as they plan and
manage the learning process for others in the organization.
There is no substitute for excellent lean technical solutions.
Value-stream analysis, physical isolation of value streams with
focused layouts, fast setups, load balancing, performance to takt
time, small lot production, and the other lean tools are all important.
Experience suggests, however, that where people must interface
the technical solution in a significant way, lean technology will
not stand alone. We have to manage change. And to manage change,
we have to manage a learning process. Focused education and training—first
for the management-steering team and then for other implementation
teams—will make the difference between success and failure.