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Who Cares? How to Engage Your People in Sustained Lean

by Joanna McGuffey & Thomas Richert
December 3, 2020

Who Cares? How to Engage Your People in Sustained Lean

by Joanna McGuffey & Thomas Richert
December 3, 2020 | Comments (7)

How do you get other people to buy in to lean?

Perhaps no other question quite captures the key challenge of sparking, and sustaining, enduring lean transformation in organizations. We have learned from experience that when people have an emotional connection to why they do the work, they are more apt to adopt the lean practices that improve that work. We have experienced this first-hand at places such as the Cleveland Clinic and OHSU Hospital, and we also observe that this happened at Toyota. (The Toyoda Precepts show how Toyota launched its journey to help people in a nation live a better life.)

We challenge you to think about your own goals in promoting lean. Prioritizing efficiency loses a vital piece of why lean was created—and why people desire to adopt improved ways of working.

If we want people to adopt lean practices to be more effective at work, then we must show them how these practices help them with their journey--and stop talking about our journey. It’s important to start with an understanding of not only how people work, but how people think and feel about work. In particular, you should pay attention to people’s subjective reality: how events lead them to feel, and the meaning they attach to events. In his book Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human, Daniel Siegel details the perils of ignoring subjective reality. Advertisers who understand this carefully include contexts that evoke emotions they anticipate will shape the decisions customers will make, because the advertiser’s products will enhance their life in some beneficial way. That is why you will find a touching father-daughter reunion featured in a battery commercial which sparks feelings and familiarity about how a battery can personally impact your life.

People attach deeper significance to lean work in other areas, including spirituality—a topic we explored in a previous Lean Post.

In Tom’s coaching experience over the past two decades with design and construction teams, he finds that a team’s embrace of lean falls into three broad categories. Some teams resist implementing lean practices, ostensibly agreeing to practice lean while continuing to work according to their established non-lean patterns. Their results are predictably poor. Other teams find themselves with a strong leader, and through that person’s determination implement lean practices. Those teams achieve fairly good results, so long as the leader does not move on to another project.

And finally, we find teams within which a critical mass of individuals commits to working together toward a common goal, leveraging lean practices and developing a continuous improvement mindset. These teams achieve outstanding results, reducing project costs by more than 20% and construction timelines by more than 25%.

Finding Clues in Neuroscience

We believe this difference in acceptance, and therefore results, can be partly explained by neuroscience. In his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Matthew Lieberman shares research demonstrating that people have two distinct mental systems for handling social and nonsocial cognition. Social cognition is thinking about other people and the relationship between oneself and other people. Nonsocial cognition is more abstract, for example thinking about logical connections between numbers or remembering facts.

While experientially similar, these two types of cognition activate different parts of the brain. Interestingly, the social cognition system is our default way of thinking, and the mode we fall into naturally if not engaged in nonsocial thinking. We do this because we naturally want to connect with others, anticipating their needs and assessing whether we can or should serve those needs. It is a critical survival skill for humans as a species, and a skill from which we built our civilization.

Lieberman’s work suggests two ideas why many people fail to buy in to lean. First, lean advocates too often assume others think like them. Second, lean advocates use mostly nonsocial arguments when promoting the merits of lean.

On the first idea, many lean advocates can (like Tom) see an inherent beauty in the design and implementation of lean practices. Joanna, in contrast, likes to ask the question, “does one care more about advocating lean practices, or about the people who would benefit from implementing them?”  Many people who are first introduced to lean see, like Joanna, a technical and sterile set of processes that are helpful yet incomplete in addressing core work concerns. We expect there are many more people who share Joanna’s perspective than Tom’s.

On the second idea, lean is often presented in the context of its inherent logic as a scientific approach to work by people whose minds value logic and work that is grounded in science. They make very sound nonsocial cognitive arguments for lean, believing that is what matters most. The use of social cognition required to persuade most people is limited.

These two ideas have informed a lean brand positioning mistake, which is to use marketing terms. Lean advocates too often implore people to adopt lean practices solely on the technical merits,Go to the gemba of other people’s minds, understand where they want to go and what they value, and then advocate for lean using language that resonates with their identity, purpose and values. because the technical merits appeal to the way they think. Rather than engage their own social cognition system to observe what other people value, or in lean terms, to go to the gemba of the broader society, they argue for lean without sharing important facts about how people are thinking about work or human desires.

Create Caring By Connecting the Work to Greater Purpose

Circling back to the building industry, one very successful lean project was the construction of the Taussig Cancer Center for the Cleveland Clinic. Along with the many lean practices that the project team implemented, project leaders sought to establish a connection between the people building the center and the impact that facility would have on the community. One measure they took was to install a bulletin board at the entrance to the project and invite the people building the project to post notes and photos of family members and friends touched by cancer. This simple act connected people to a purpose that was greater than themselves, making their contributions to the project meaningful. Lean construction practices were a means to an important vision.

This isn’t too different from the purpose for the work of the people of Toyota in the early years. As expressed in the Five Precepts based on Sakichi Toyoda’s teaching, they were contributing to the welfare of their country. Reading into the history of social strata in Japan and based on the arguably inefficient location of the first Toyota factory, it is easy to infer that this concern was specifically for the welfare of the agrarian segment of the country from which the Toyoda family came.

So herein is the challenge with encouraging lean with the implicit or explicit invitation to people to begin their lean journey. This well-intentioned phrase, capturing the excitement many lean aficionados have with lean thinking, captures the imagination of people who think similarly about work as did Tom when he was introduced to lean. It does little for people who may see lean as only one part of a more holistic picture. 

Most people cannot be interested in undertaking a lean journey. Some people are on a journey to treat and cure cancer. Others are on a journey to entertain people, and others are on a journey to provide products to people that allow them to live better. Toyota began as a journey to help people in a nation live a better life.

If we want people to adopt lean practices because they will then be able to be more effective at work, then we must show them how these practices help them with their journey and stop talking about our journey. Go to the gemba of other people’s minds, understand where they want to go and what they value, and then advocate for lean using language that resonates with their identity, purpose and values.

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Simon Gary December 03, 2020

This is a fascinating article - thank you very much for sharing it here.

I am convinced that the psychological interaction with "lean" is the next step for this body of work.

I recently released a book with discusses a method to release people from their past experiences to help them engage with creativity and freedom.

If we feel, subconsciously, that waste protects us from the foibles of the world, stripping waste away becomes scary, and we may, without even being aware, push against this new "lean" thinking.

When we realise this resistance is just thought in the moment, it can have a liberating effect.

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Alexandre P. Guillard December 03, 2020

Thanks a lot for your profound and exciting article! 

Purpose, heart and social learning are three main components to take into account to make lean adopted. 
Understanding and speaking with the language of employees in context before “promoting and sellin lean” is also certainly onf of the keys for the future.

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Julian Winn December 06, 2020

Interesting though this article is, I have a few observations.

I woud like to see a greater emphasis on RESPECT for work colleagues. In this regard I took exception to the title of the post "Who Cares? How to Engage Your People in Sustained Lean". YOUR people, MY people? Those I work with aren't MY people. They are colleagues. We work in a Team. We are a Team.

In recognising colleagues, and involving them in planning, executing, implementing and sustaining Lean change it is, in my opinion, much easier to follow a Lean philosophy of continuous improvement.

I agree that sustaining Lean is also made easier by understanding the context within which colleagues work; contexts change. Recognising and adopting to changing contexts is essential. There may well be broad contexts and categories into which a 'a team's embrace of Lean falls'; but 'broad' hides a potential myriad of meso- and micro-contexts and category. Unearthing these will assist Lean implementation and sustainment.

Getting "to the gemba of other people’s minds" takes considerable time, effort and excellent people and team-building skills. Implementers also need to answer the question 'What's in it for me'. Higher and greater purposes are one level but buy-in is both personal and philanthropic. From the post I inferred this from the "Go to the gemba of other people's minds." In my opinion we need to make this explicit, for ourselves and others in the collegiate Team.

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Tom Richert December 06, 2020
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Thank you Simon, Alexandre, and Julian. I appreciate your thoughts on the article. The idea that some waste results as a means of unconscious psychological protection is an important point. Logical arguments do not remove the fear informing such protection.

I appreciate the concern with the term "your people." In the context used in the article the intention was to refer to people as peers on a team regardless of the formal reporting structure that team may have. "Your people" in this context is relational not possessive and refers to a practice of shared leadership without regard to hierarchy that we advocate with teams. 

I agree that it is important to link the personal aspirations with team purpose. What neuroscience is finding is that the most impactful personal aspirations are contributory in nature and not primarily based on a "what is in it for me" concern.

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Mike December 07, 2020

This is a great read however, how do you influence lean when you are not in a position to do so. 

how do you convince "industry dinosaurs" when you are at the bottom of the food chain?


I have studied lean for years yet I can say I have had no industry experience due to people not buying in. 

It seems to me people lack the understanding that measurement, true problem definition and current state mapping are critical to any lean transition. Is this an educational issue or is this people resisting change?

Reply »

Tom Richert December 07, 2020

Thank you for your comment, Mike. It's more an emotional enrollment issue than an educational issue. That's in part because the resistance to change often has an emotional stimulus as it's root cause. Robert Keegan and Lisa Lahey describe this as an "immunity to change," which is a helpful way to understand the hidden ways we keep ourselves from making even the changes we do want. I suggest that immunity to change also impares lean advocates that believe a strictly logical argument is all that is needed to persuade people of the merits of lean.

As for changing an industry, while noble in intent and shared by many people in many industries, I believe we can be less ambitious and still make a valuable impact. I like John Shook's description of Lean as fractal, meaning it can be practiced at any level, beginning with ourselves as individuals. My recommendation is to start with allies (and not necessarily only inside your organization) to develop an emotional enrollment for making some meaningful impact that benefits others through your shared work. While this doesn't create an automatic shift to lean practices it does create an opening for leading others in that direction.

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Rob December 07, 2020
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This is a very important aspect of leadership that is not easily conceptualized. Lean provides fundamental principles which have broad application as highlighted by the Shingo Principles of Operational Excellence. An argument can be made that if all these principles were interconnected, checked and adjusted by the systems and tools of the organization you’re in good enough shape to leave the subjective stuff aside. It’s been my experience that this would be a mistake. This is not to discount the enormous value and necessity of the systems we work so hard to develop but to recognize that these vary practices need to give space for the subjective framing discussed. It may not be a popular view but this subjective element is often the deciding factor to bring a team from victim of circumstance to hero on a journey of improvement.

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