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Why Don’t We Make the Lean Change?

by Hal on October 14, 2007

in leadership, lean

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Norman Bodek is concerned that companies are not taking up a lean way of working. This is in the face of overwhelming evidence that a lean approach is one of the best ways of working. What gets in the way? Norman attributes it to middle managers who resist change. He says the resistance is manifest in saying, "No," to employees' proposals of improvement. I don't buy it.

Norman is right when he says the people get in the way of change. It is not organizations that resist change. Only individuals can choose to not change. But why? Why in the face of overwhelming evidence that lean is a better approach would someone not embrace the change? Fear is the first answer. People see that something is at risk if they embrace something different. That makes sense, however when firms get into real trouble — the threat of bankruptcy — managers find a way to get behind a change to a lean approach. In the face of big stakes people come through.

Success is an impediment to change. "If it ain't broke don't fix it," is not just cliche it's our common sense. We also say, "Success breeds success." It's not that we resist change, change just doesn't make sense. Only exceptional people change when they are successful.1

And then there is our biology. There's an expression, "Flying by the seat of your pants." I'm not a pilot. I'm told that it means that our body is telling us something that is contrary to what we should be doing. In other words, our common sense betrays us. But it's worse than that. People new to snow skiing lean back rather than forward when going down hill. Consequently, they have less control over their skis…just the opposite of what their body is telling them. We pay attention to the feelings in our bodies and don't do what we intend or are taught to do.

But none of this fully explains why we don't change. The biggest impediment to change is our historicity. Huh? Human beings make sense of their place in the world in the stories we tell. These stories originate in the conversations of our families, particularly those of our maternal grandmothers. Our mothers learned 'mothering' from their mothers. Our experience, our mothers' experiences and our grandmothers' experiences shape how we make sense of our world today. And what does this have to do with our openness to change? Everything. I'll say more tomorrow.

  1. Tiger Woods rebuilt his swing at the top of his game. [ ⇑ back ]

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David Schmaltz October 15, 2007 at 1:36 pm

When a change is “suggested” as an imperative, where there is really one “obvious” choice, there seems to be ample justification to reject the suggestion.

I’ve been collecting a list of What Does Not Work when it comes to change. I see in my list many of the tactics commonly employed to encourage change. Interesting.

Here’s a link to the list of what does not work:

2 Grant Boston October 15, 2007 at 5:08 pm

I disagree. People are always changing – they grow, get married, have kids, change jobs and not neccessarily in that order.

Christensen points out in the “Innovators Dilemma” that companies and their systems are almost unable to respond to disruptive innovations. Individuals within an organisation change and adapt how they work far faster than the organisation but they all change in different, unco-ordinated directions that overall causes inertia and resistance to a change.

3 Hal October 15, 2007 at 7:43 pm

Grant, I don’t understand what it is you disagree with. Please elaborate.

4 Grant Boston October 15, 2007 at 9:36 pm

Sorry Hal,

I disagree with the assertion that “It is not organizations that resist change”. An organisation develops its own history and systems that, as the organisation gets larger, are very resistant to change. The change to lean may require a change to the accounting, purchasing, time recording, and remuneration systems – an organisation has spent a lot of time and money making these systems work and is very reluctant to abandon them. The statement should be “It is organisations that resist change”.

Individuals can and do choose to change but in an organisational context individual change is un-directed. I see it as Brownian motion in a fluid – all the individual molecules are very active but the overall effect is to cool the fluid. Directed change is like a pump – all the molecules are still active in random directions but overall they move in the same direction.

So, to keep stretching the analogy, organisational change needs a “pump” – someone or something that causes an overall direction of change. The bigger the organisation the bigger the pump required and the longer it takes to get things moving.

5 Steve May 29, 2008 at 12:53 am


Great blog. I am a quality manager for a large international construction firm, and I will be reading this blog on a regular basis.



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