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Be Prepared to Change Your Habits

by Danielle McGuiness
July 17, 2013

Be Prepared to Change Your Habits

by Danielle McGuiness
July 17, 2013 | Comments (19)

At the Lean Enterprise Institute we want to help companies make things better through developing people, minimizing waste, and increasing efficiency. Then we want to help companies learn and grow by telling their own story. 

I remember hearing a story in which one of our own team members here at LEI was criticized for “giving away the answer” on a project. What value does a competing firm have if someone just gives away the answer, right? Well, I think of Toyota and TSSC, how both of these companies frequently just “give away” the answer, too. No one seems to think twice about it.

Why? Because even when we give away the answer, this lean stuff is pretty hard to do. If knowing the answer to a problem or question were enough, all companies in the world would be lean! We know this is not the case. What makes the difference for effective lean practitioners and successful companies is sustained practice.

So, why is it Lean so hard? I think we all know what it’s like to want to find the quick answer or secret sauce to anything. Pick up any beauty magazine and it will tell you 10 ways to drop 10 pounds in a just few days. But how often do you come across an article that tells you how to keep 10 pounds off for life? The key idea here is sustainability. It’s the same thing with lean thinking and practice. Tools give you quick wins, but without disciplined practice and a management system in place to develop people and leadership capabilities, improvement projects quickly fall to the wayside. You quickly gain back those 10 pounds you were so excited to lose.

There’s a Native American story of two wolves that live inside everyone: a good wolf and a bad wolf. How do you know which wolf wins? The one you feed. A fellow staffer told me that by feeding the good wolf (for example, by exercising daily), there’s a greater chance you exercise again the next day. When you make an excuse, you feed the other wolf, the bad wolf, and there's a much greater chance that you will fail to exercise the next day.

We keep 10 pounds off for life by changing our habits. By swapping unhealthy habits for healthy ones, we create new routines. What we're doing is creating a structure for self-improvement. You might want to think about having a personal trainer/coach to help you get there. No one says you have to do this lean transformation work alone. In fact, it's often easier to have someone help push you in the beginning until you can take yourself or your team to the next level.

In a business environment, coaching is a great way to create problem solvers. Just like in sports, coaches help us get to that next level. They push our thinking and support and guide us when we're stuck. Lean tools will only help you if you know how to use them, and this is where a good coach comes in. Build a management structure for improvement and capability development and everything else eventually falls into place. Practice creating and maintaining new habits. And when in doubt, get a coach. 

Keywords:  coaching,  leadership,  musings
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19 Comments | Post a Comment
Kevin Kobett July 21, 2013
6 People AGREE with this comment

The question, "What's in it for me?" has not been adequately answered. The answer must be the same for all employees, so pay raises and promotions are out. The answer, "It will be a better place to work" is not a good answer. The first innovators to step forward are going to be on the hot seat for speaking up. Why should they fight for a future utopia?  Changing a company's culture is a daunting task.

Asian cultures are different than ours. Their employees never ask, "What's in it for me?"

Until this question is answered, lean programs will continue to falter.

Reply »

Danielle McGuiness July 22, 2013

I agree it can be a tough subject, but it makes me think of a particular story.  I recently worked at manufacturing plant where the operator needed to consistently make split second decisions. She had to shuffle through mounds of paper to attach a manifest to a product that was coming down the line which wasn't in a consistent pattern. Her job was so important that she controlled the rest of the plant by determining the model of the product based on the manifest she hung.

So when the operators ask "What's in it for me?" I think about that same operator. All she wants in her job it to remove the pressure of making these decisions and to take the thinking out of the work. She would like to hang that manifest 1 for 1, so that when the product comes down the line she doesn't need to think about which model it is, but that she can hang whatever manifest is coming out of the printer without thinking about what's coming down the line. So for her, "what's in it"- a better, calmer work environment.

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S.B. Lewis July 26, 2013
I'm looking to learn. I don't spend enough time on these types of conversations. Because I personally feel and think that if we start with the assumption that employees will ask, and we must address, "what's in it for me" is flawed. I was raised to ask "how do I help others?" And I think a LOT of people feel and think that way. Can we start from that question instead? I'm no psychologist, and I hope to learn from your responses. I also work from the assumption that if I help others succeed then I will succeed, so I don't need to seek "my own". I must be responsible for myself, but seek others' happiness and success. What if we started a meeting or seminar in our sompany with that premise, such as: "Good morning, welcome. As you know we all believe that by helping others we help ourselves. We are going to talk about lean. Lean is based on that foundation of how to help each other, (including the owners/investors in this company who have made our job possible), by continously improving ourselves and our processes, for our customers." Sorry, a bit wordy. Perhaps others can explain or dispute this better than I have stated. I also assume (I hope I'm wrong) that many will consider this unrealistic, but it is reality for me and for many.

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kevin kobett July 22, 2013
2 People AGREE with this comment

Great response. I agree with you 100%. I actually look for irritated employees. An irritation is an opportunity for improvement. 

I like how you made your point with a story. Once I facilitated a problem with too much paper to shuffle. Ended up using both sides of a sheet of paper to reduce the number of sheets.

However, I still think the "What's in it for me?" question needs more work. The main reason I see for lean failure is the lack of participation. No one ever talks about it. I know there are good answers out there.

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Hans Palma July 23, 2013

Our hospital began our Lean journey this year and we have several projects going.  So far I could agree that one of the biggest problems is lack of participation in the activities.  In fact, several people who were very enthusiastic from the beginning are now drawing back because of low participation.

My assessment has been that the journey has faultered due to a lack of standard work.  The initial assumption was that if we train people and get them excited, we could turn them loose to start a revolution.  We tried this by introducing 5S to 3 departments.  At first, the departments were incredibly excited and red tagged the living day lights out of their departments.  Sadly, the excitement did wear off and people were no longer looking for the next step, they just wanted to be done.  This was exacerbated by the fact outside factors began to stress the departments.

Progress reached a plateau and we were left trying to figure out why our wheels were spinning.  After making a site visit to another hospital to get some ideas, the answer became clear:  We needed to incorporate our gains into standard work.

We needed to stop asking people to do Lean and make Lean work it part of regular duties that were regularly audited.  In hospitals, we are used to lots of regulatory boards and frequent audits.  Things that are audited tend to get done (or done right before the auditor shows up).  Outside auditors rely on "drop in" audits to get people afraid of being out of compliance.  This works some of the time, but often people take the risk of being out of compliance.  The only way to have true change is to have routine and "frequent enough" audits.

Today, we are working to hardwire our Lean work into daily duties and are beginning to audit on a routine basis.  It is too soon to tell but we believe we are going to be able to push through the wall we are currently experiencing.

As a side note, the goal of change is really to change people's behavior.  There are two ways of doing this: 1)Change people's thinking and they will change their behavior or 2) change people's behavior directly which over time results in a change in thinking. 

Having found the first route unsuccessful, we have chosen to take the second route and have concluded that to change people's behavior clear and standardized directions must be provided and frequent audits must be performed. 

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Kevin Kobett July 23, 2013


My motive was selfish. I wanted to bait Danielle into a position to promote my own agenda. I failed. She is correct. The best way to promote lean is to reduce stress on the job. Ask all of your employees, "What work task irritates you. On the way to work, what task are you already regretting to do." 

Take all of these responses and post them for all your employees to see and ask for suggestions. When you get a suggestion, post it for everyone to see and comment. Teamwork will evolve. Someone on another shift may have a good way to do this task. You have to be vigilant and continue this process. When employees see you will not quit, I am sure they will respond and help each other.

I do not think an audit will force them to embrace lean.

Reply »

Danielle McGuiness July 24, 2013
Hi Hans,

Before I worked for LEI I worked for a small Massachusetts Hospital in their Emergency Department. Like many EDs, long waits and unhappy patients were par for the course. With a lean consultant  and a multi-disciplinary hospital team (MD, 2 RNs, Tech, Registration Person, and a performance improvement staffer)- we set out to create care teams that run in 4 team sequence with forecasted demand with a flexible enough staffing for when the train hits the bus.

We ran a pilot in a section of the ED with the main team and slowly (2 newbies at max) introduced other members into the pilot. When we tried to introduce too many at once, the pilot would flop as people would revert back to their old ways of working.  

The whole idea of "act your way into a new way of thinking" was really what was able to save the pilot. The front runners in seeing a better way to collaborate with their clinical peers create a better avenue for patient care. My making this pilot into a model area, we were able to help people 'see the light' if you will- and slowly.  

Change is hard-There's no secret sauce or miracle drug. But, if we were all like Toyota the work we do wouldn't be as challenging or rewarding. Or, that's how I see it anyway.

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Sheri Sala July 25, 2013

A model that my company has adopted came from Partners in Leadership, called the Results Pyramid. Essentially, if you want different results, people need to behave differently. To get people to behave differently, they need different beliefs. To get people to believe differently, they need different experiences. In other words, you need to provide different experiences for people that will, in turn, change their beliefs about their performance and change their behavior, providing different results.

More audits - or including the lean practices in those audits - is a new experience for people. They should quickly change their beliefs that these practices are important and will be measured. If they do - and buy in to those being important for their performance and whatever motivates them to do well - then their behavior should change, and the results.

Another way to look at it: what gets measured gets done. If improving the job becomes part of the job - and expectations are set and monitored - then you should see sustained results.

But, you are right, Kevin, if people don't get the benefit of improving their work, then the efforts will fail.

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Anne Embrey July 25, 2013
Great article and the discussion is just as good.  I love the idea of going after the irritations in people's jobs - that is our approach as well.  But we still struggle to find supportive balance between the department leaders and the lean leaders.  Department leaders are focused on today, this thing right in front of me and lean leaders are focused on looking at this thing right in front of me, potentially stopping it long enough to understand it, and then finding steps to strip away or change. 

In conversation we are united in goals - reduce the amount of labor per task without compromising quality.  But in practice, we aren't always in synch.  How have you been successful working with that middle leadership level?   

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Brad Power July 25, 2013
4 People AGREE with this comment
To sustain changes have the people who need to change define the changes.

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David Sartorius July 25, 2013
All - good discussion so far. With regards to the topic of middle management, I have found that level to often be the not-so-obvious barrier. We usually get good support from senior leadership, and do a good job of engaging the "worker bees" and get them excited about improving their work environments. But we often neglect understanding the needs, concerns, and desires of middle management.

I have learned from these challenges, and have used several approaches to help engage and get buyin from middle management:

1. Just like any other stakeholders, we need to spend time with the mid-level leaders to understand their needs, what "irritates" them, and what would make their lives easier.

2. We need to help them understand how their role changes in a lean environment. The nature and scope of the change will depend on circumstances, but needs to be understood, communicated, and planned for.

3. For sustainability, "Leader Standard Work" must be developed, documented, and communicated/trained. This will typically be fairly different than what the mid-level leaders had been doing in the past.

I absolutely agree with the comments above that documenting, training, and "auditing" standard work is essential to sustainability.  

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Julio Molina July 25, 2013

Great article! I would consider to search a little more on how to get the good habits into the set of mind of the work force.

Coaching them is a great way to start, but from coaching to get them to do right the right things all the time, there is a long way that lays into the culture of the work environment.

So, changing to good habits will support a new culture, and if that new culture is based on lean principles/practices, for sure it will enable a good start on a lean transformation of a work environment. 

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kevin kobett July 25, 2013

Storytelling. Every lean success starts with an irritation. That irritation could come from many sources including employees, customers, suppliers, middle managers responsible for production numbers, etc. Irritations must be shared with all employees. Posted irritations facilitate teamwork by allowing employees with the same problem the opportunity to find each other and communicate.

When a new way of doing something starts, it must be put in story form and posted for all employees to see. The story starts with how the irritation was discovered. This is an important step because all employees can easily participate in lean by simply identifying work tasks that irritates them. Most times identifying the problem is the hardest part of the problem.

Besides training employees, lean stories facilitate teamwork. You see a posted irritation and think you have a good solution. But your not 100% sure. You can go to the story board and find employees who have successfully solved problems and get their opinions. Most likely sharing your solution with another good problem solver will lead to a better solution.

I am sure there are many other reasons to tell stories.

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Tim Donaghey July 25, 2013

I like the storytelling observation.  Each of my lean conversions (electromechanical assembly/test/cal) started with the story of what we do today and the thought process behind it.  Everyone was familiar with that story because they lived it every day.

Then  I'd tell a new story and challenge the thought process. For example, existing methodology: A customer just ordered 12 of our 'Netpac' systems (not a big mover).  We're short 6 circuit boards to build the systems.  Our MRP ordering rules plan a run of 50 circuit boards because that's an 'efficient' quantity for us to kit and build.  

The twist: We have the components to build the 6 boards we need.

We run MRP and the system plans the 50 boards and all of a sudden we have 28 different items (each with their own ordering multiples) that we need to buy NOW!  Hmmmm, what's wrong with this picture?

Now I propose the lean solution where we have materials at point of use, eliminate pulling kits and eliminate set ups with workcells, and build just what we need.  We stop jerking around Purchasing, we don't kill ourselves building 44 circuit boards we don't need in Production, and we do a great job for our customer.

I've always made the impedus for change about how we serve the customer, how we beat the competition, how we simplify our lives and get more done by doing less 'stuff'.        

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kevin kobett July 26, 2013


Stories such as yours are good learning tools because they teach the scientific method in an easy-to-understand, non-intimidating format. The steps in the scientific method are observation, hypothesis, experiment and conclusion.

Telling a story of what we do and the thought process behind it is the observation step. This step would include the observation of the problem. We can build the Netpac systems now but it is not efficient according to SOP.

Your hypothesis is to build just what we need.

Your experiment is to move the materials to the point of use, eliminate the pulling kits and eliminate setups with work cells.

Your conclusion is we eliminate unnecessary steps which are not beneficial to both our internal and external customers.

You can find these same steps in Danielle's manifest story.

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Skip Matty July 26, 2013
2 People AGREE with this comment

Great blog.  We often underestimate the importance of changing habits in lean transformations.  If anyone is interested in understanding this sbject in greater depth I reccomend reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.  He does a great job explaining and giving examples of how habits are formed, and changed, with the habit loop of cue-routine-reward.

Skip Matty    

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Danielle McGuiness July 29, 2013

I have not read the Power of Habit- thanks for the tip and for posting!


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Carol Ann July 28, 2013
Coaching is great. Structure is great. Change can be great, if effected judiciously and thoughtfully...(change for the sake of change is wasteful). Change is impossible without support for the change targets AND the change agent. While working for corporations as a full-time employee, the projects that I led that fell out of compliance did so because management did not support the change. Six Sigma & Lean were "nice to haves" rather than "must haves". It was clear to the workforce that schedule was king, and their level of involvement and participation reflected that. It seems illogical, because Lean supports schedule as well as quality. But, illogical as it may seem, a known process is perceived as "faster" , even though metrics may prove otherwise, simply because of resistance to change. Interestingly, as a consultant, my experience has been different, perhaps because my expertise is sought and paid for rather than a readily-available item? At any rate, I believe no change initiative will remain implemented long enough to become part of the culture unless that culture is supported from the top down.

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kevin kobett July 28, 2013

This has been a good thread. I believe most of the answers to implementing an effective lean program is present.

Each company should start its own irritation blog. The thread opens with an explanation of the process being used and the problem (irritation). An example of an irritation is, "Our paint is peeling off our customers' gym floors at an abnormally high rate."

All employees from all locations can log in and post data, observations, suggestions, etc. Someone makes a critical observation, "Red paint never peels off customers' floors." A QA tech reports red paint does not always pass the QA bonding test. Another employee tries different substrates to error proof the QA bonding test. Red paint always adheres to glass; the other colors do not. More bonding agent is added to the paints that peel. The irritation disappears.

Top management can easily see what is happening with lean (audits). Middle management is now accountable to top management for implementing good ideas. Employees help each other. Different experiences are provided. Reading these threads trains new employees.

In one of his books, Tom Peters contends the heroes of your company should be promoted two levels to facilitate high performance. The irritation blog will identify lean leaders. They will post many good ideas and eagerly help others refine their ideas. They have the knowledge, skills, abilities, experience and passion necessary to make lean sustainable.

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