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Tough Empathy

by Eric Ethington
September 3, 2015

Tough Empathy

by Eric Ethington
September 3, 2015 | Comments (2)

Maybe not a catchy song lyric, but it’s a statement worth exploring, especially in the context of trying to genuinely improve our organizations.

A colleague of mine (let’s call him Brian) once had a conversation similar to this one below with his boss:

Boss: "...so, after considering all of the people in our group, you are the best person to send into the Fabrication Center to guide their lean journey."

Brian: "Why me? Who did I (insert expletive phrase here)?"

Boss: "They specifically asked for you."

Ever meet one of those lean practitioners who seems to always get the "dirty jobs"? Not the assignment to go help the already energized team that can't wait to get started. But the assignment to figure out what to do with that the other group, "the one that had a bad experience with lean and ‘doesn’t like change.’” And when this person does work with the team, things always seem to go ok, to “click”? These are people who can truly make lemonade out of lemons.

What's that person’s secret? Why are some CI practitioners successful in areas that others avoid? I do not pretend to know THE answer, but I have one thought and it is rooted in problem solving thinking.

We teach that the problem solving cycle begins with grasping the situation (GTS). This helps us move from our perceived problem to defining the actual problem, and then the problem solving can begin. When grasping the situation we always focus in on the process. We draw it, map it, measure it, and even draw little cartoons of it. (Ok, I do. You should try it sometime.) But what about grasping the situation as it relates to the people? I’m talking about truly “engaging the stakeholders” to the point where they WANT to be part of the improvement process.

In May 2008, Jim Womack introduced the idea of Purpose, Process, and People at an LEI webinar. I want to suggest that the CI practitioners who can succeed where others often cannot also grasp the situation of the people who are in and who support the process. And I dare go one step further, they actually have EMPATHY for the people associated with the process. They genuinely try to understand their opinions and feelings, as well as the experiences and thinking that formed them. As those things become more clear, viewing the process through their "lens", both parties (coach and coachee) find that thread or two of commonality in their current thinking with lean thinking. And that thread becomes the beginning of a working and learning relationship.

Why care about empathy? I've seen Lean approached from what I will call a "purist" approach. There are certain principles and tools and they will be used. Fine, but unless the purist is ready to manage the outcome 24/7/365, then this approach is doomed to fail.

You cannot win people's hearts through dictate.

I do not aim to suggest that the underlying principles of Lean be compromised simply so people feel good, but leaders who are successful in the long term need to apply some empathy to their approach if they truly want to be successful. With a bit of Tough Empathy (a play of the phrase Tough Love), I mean that every coach needs to be sensitive to the coachee’s current state, not just the technical current state of the process. And, on the other hand, for this to work, the coachee also needs approach problem solving with an open mind, ready to learn and to take responsibility for ultimately counter-measuring the problem. Both are necessary for a sustained lean transformation.

The more I see people trying to teach and learn this stuff, the more I’m convinced it just won’t happen without demonstrated empathy.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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2 Comments | Post a Comment
FSabala September 03, 2015
3 People AGREE with this comment

Great article.

Empathy is an important part of respect.  Really trying to understand the person, where they are coming from, where they are at, and where they want to go is key to building that relationship.

Thanks for writing about this.

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Georgette Rahal September 17, 2015

Lean methodology has been one of the best things that I have ever used in my career. I've also been blessed with participating in Stop at Nothing sessions. Together these two marry Lean and true empathy. If LEI hasn't reached out to Stop at Nothing, they should. I guarantee it will be a great match for both of them. 

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