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The Obstacle is the Path

by Deborah McGee
January 20, 2015

The Obstacle is the Path

by Deborah McGee
January 20, 2015 | Comments (2)

As LEI’s Learning Activities Manager, I work with community members to explore training interventions to help build lean capability within their organizations. From time to time, this brings me the privilege of attending the on-site training workshops we coordinate.

One community organization I work with is seeking improvement to a process by implementing a Kanban system. The future of the business does not hinge on its success; it’s a low pressure, “let’s-try-this” approach to experiment with lean thinking, and it’s a learning experience.

As expected, the Kanban system – this change of focus, behavior, and routine – is being met with resistance. (Resistance, I’ve learned, is not the enemy! When met properly, doesn’t it lift our endeavors to new heights?) What we came back to with each hurdle was the value to the customer, the “why.” If you don’t know your customer and what they value, or if your organization doesn’t prioritize value from your customer’s point of view, I don’t envy you the task of getting your team engaged, your culture shifted.

But with this particular project, as changes have gotten underway, here are the obstacles we’ve met so far. I want to share them since they’re common and, though frustrating, they’re not at all insurmountable. Let me know if these sound familiar:

  1. Skepticism. The immediate reaction was: “This is going to result in more work for me, isn’t it?’ or the opposite, but equal, “This is going to work me right out of a job, isn’t it?” We were fortunate to hear this objection explicitly stated. If you don’t hear this out loud, then know it’s the part of the iceberg that’s beneath your open water. This type of resistance calls for trust. In our case, we built trust by bringing focus back to the purpose – the reason for the improvement. When we deactivated the fear associated with this improvement work by aligning to the purpose, we found the Value of the work to be done, and an openness to hear and learn more on all sides.
  2. Rejection. After that openness had been established we talked about the Kanban system and the process: how it works. Reaction? “This seems very complicated!” Rejection. I literally felt the team shut down to the idea during an explanation of the process. If this has happened to you, take a step back, come back to the purpose. Explain the Value this new process can deliver . Ensure their safety in participating, too. “Mistakes won’t count against you here, we’re just going to experiment with a Kanban and make it our own.” If you can genuinely provide this sense of security to people, you stand a better chance of gaining trust and acceptance. After adding a little enthusiasm, there we found a willingness to try. 
  3. Inconvenience. Even after overcoming initial skepticism and rejection, we we met obstacles. 5S-ing the area meant people were going to be put out of their comfort zone. Once I had someone complain that an exercise in level loading was “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” This I wanted to dismiss, but had to respect. I can see now how it might look or feel or be that way. So we responded to that discomfort with action: “Let’s study that. Let’s examine how this change will affect other systems in play.” We asked the person who surfaced the concern take responsibility for the consideration, guided by a coach who used the opportunity to demonstrate the interdependence of systems, and bring the focus back to purpose… the value of the work at hand. Seize these learning moments!
  4. Cost. After a great deal of effort building just an openness to exploring change, a willingness to try, and the focus to persevere – the team wanted to buy some fancy bells and whistles to make our Kanban hum. But what message does this send? We decided to face this obstacle with Theodore Roosevelt’s sage advice, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” We built our pilot Kanban using cardboard boxes. I always recommend to start this way, in other words, “function over form.” Prove that the system will deliver value and then invest in upgrades if you really need to.

These are some of the obstacles we’ve encountered so far. I also anticipate the usual suspects to show up soon enough. You know, lack of time, lack of understanding (or misunderstanding), and the mother of all obstacles… sustainability!

My experience with this particular organization, like so many, is a privilege. What makes these experiences so exceptional to me is learning about the everyday obstacles people are called to overcome. There’s a beautiful, common sense simplicity about Lean that makes it universally relevant and applicable. We do manage to complicate things with our fears, expectations, conditioning, and preconceived ideas though, don’t we? Upon this ground, obstacles form.

Obstacle: “Something that obstructs or hinders progress.”

The thing is, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s how much we need to embrace obstacles. “The Obstacle is the Path.” The obstacles that surface may not come with easy answers, but once you’re willing to embrace problems, you’re on your way to solving them.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  getting started,  learning,  LEI
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2 Comments | Post a Comment
Ken Hunt January 20, 2015

Regarding the Cost issue, I always like to use one of the Ten Basic Kaizen Principles: "Don't substitute money for thinking - Creativity before Capital".



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Stuart January 20, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

I ran an event once that had been forced onto the team.  They didn't want to be there, didn't agree with the idea that was being proposed and all this the week before Christmas!  You have to find those chinks in the doubt and exploit them.  I split the group into two and had the main opponents explain what was needed to work and those who showed some acceptance why is should remain the same.  The first group finally had a language change from "this won't work because...." to "if we do this we can.....".  That was when they started to "see the light" and develop a process that worked from them AND met the idea they had been asked to address.



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