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Just a Fish Stick: The Perils of Forcing Your Change Agenda onto Others

by Brent Wahba
November 17, 2015

Just a Fish Stick: The Perils of Forcing Your Change Agenda onto Others

by Brent Wahba
November 17, 2015 | Comments (10)

"Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.

Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.

Ask a man what he really wants, and sometimes it’s just a fish stick.”

- Ancient Proverb

Be honest: who hasn’t sat through a riveting keynote speech where the CEO / ship captain recalls, in harrowing edge-of-your-seat suspense, how methodology XYZ (as outlined in his or her latest book available in the lobby for $24.95) saved the day as s/he stood steadfast at the helm while navigating thrashing waves, battering rain, and biblical-level winds (not to mention pirates, scurvy, and an irritating white whale)? Makes you want to do something…EPIC…like a “radical transformation,” doesn’t it? Blimey, let’s get started right now!

Well, before you even cast off, you might want to first check where the winds of change are blowing and if the crew is on board yet.              

It’s easy to get swept up in these tales because who doesn’t want to be telling a better story, on a bigger stage, five years from now? Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against you because most large-scale change programs fail to meet their objectives. What about all those overnight “bounty of success” stories?  It seems like they are happening all the time, but they really aren’t. No doubt many are embellished by authors, publishers, and consultants to serve their own needs, but more importantly, the “How?”s are almost always just a little more complex and difficult than what’s written in those 250 carefully-curated pages.

Now I’m not trying to dissuade you from doing the really hard work if you do have the opportunity, but please, be even more honest with yourself – do you really have that opening to achieve your change agenda? Let’s not forget how CEO Bob Nardelli’s efficiency program almost capsized Home Depot because he failed to comprehend what kind of transformation his organization could handle. The weather conditions have to be just right to sail around the world unscathed.

Conversely, there is nothing inherently wrong in starting with small improvements and expectations – whether it’s performing incrementally better on the line, solving a pesky R&D problem, or making your customers just a little happier. It may not be nearly as heroic-sounding, but people and organizations generally learn and change in small bites at first because that’s just how human brains and cultures work. Maybe that small hors d’oeuvre of improvement wets their appetite for a bigger meal later, or else maybe it just turns out to be some bad shellfish never to be eaten again. Either way, if the organization was only ready for a small change experiment, then at least it didn’t waste a lot of precious resources planning for something bigger than it could swallow. And just like Dramamine, it prevented the long-term nausea and gag reflex that a failed change program often leads to.

The takeaway here is that if you (most likely not the CEO) are trying to force a bigger, bolder, faster change program than your or your client’s organization is ready for, then you are not just guilty of improvement overproduction, but you are also risking their health and well-being if the change goes belly up. And being “ready” means being truly ready at all levels – shareholders, executives, managers, and the front line.  

So before you try to boil the ocean and inadvertently kill all the fish forever, check your organization’s/team’s/client’s hunger and see what they can realistically digest right now. Sometimes it’s just a fish stick – and that’s okay.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  change management
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kevin kobett November 17, 2015

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Quality Circles initiative came to America 30 years ago. Thirty years of failure.

Why would an innovator tolerate this failure? There is another option. Start your own company. In the last thirty years, the number of patents issued to individuals has skyrocketed. In your first post, you mentioned the CEOs of Apple, Google and Zappos. All individuals who started their own companies.

Lean failure in established companies is due to the assumption that any manager can be trained to be a innovation leader. If you want to succeed at lean, you must find a leader who will not accept failure. That task is relatively easy.

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Ken Hunt November 17, 2015
3 People AGREE with this reply


I have to take issue with your statement about failure. Failure will happen, and what the leader needs to look for is what was learned about the failure, and how the lessons learned can be applied to process improvements.

If people are afraid to fail because of leader drawing a line in the sand saying it is unacceptable, they will also be afraid to innovate. When that happens, Lean is done.




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Mark Graban November 20, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Quality circles have been quite successful in Japan, still being used today in companies and hospitals. What's different about the environments in those organizations compared to place where it's been a failure?

The failure is usually not the fault of the methodology. I see hospitals that failed with TQM and Six Sigma that expect to be successful with Lean. Maybe Lean is different, but maybe they'll fail at that too.

To the comment on "failure is not an option." Well, failure is an option. The best way to prevent large scale failure is to allow, tolerate, learn from lots of small failures. That's true, I think, in big companies or in "Lean Startups."

Most big companies don't tolerate any small failure, which ironically leads to ensuring big failures happen.

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Brent Wahba November 18, 2015
2 People AGREE with this comment

Thank you Kevin and Ken for the comments and healthy debate.

To expand on Kevin's reference, companies like Apple, Google, & Zappos make for useful comparisons to Toyota and other lean organizations to help us understand what it takes to become successful - regardless of the specific path.  Apple etc. may not follow Lean per se, but they do many things that we would consider lean (like creating and delivering tremendous amounts of customer value) and they got there by solving their own specific problems over time which led to good processes.

No doubt top leadership was critical in each case, as was steady incremental improvement (versus sweeping transformation).  Again, that's not to say that a quick, large-scale change cannot happen, but it is more rare and difficult than we are led to believe.   


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Mark Graban November 20, 2015

Love the "proverb" at the start of your post, Brent.

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Brent Wahba November 21, 2015

Thanks, Mark.  It came to be during a conversation on this topic with Dan Markovitz.  Brent

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kevin kobett November 22, 2015

"I have to take issue with your statement about failure. Failure will happen, and what the leader needs to look for is what was learned about the failure, and how the lessons learned can be applied to process improvements."

What you described is not failure. Failure is not learning from your failures. Failure is only providing a class and nothing more. Failure is not identifying employees who have a natural disposition for lean. Failure is not making any effort to overhaul the hiring process to attract lean leaders. Failure is putting up a visual board and employees do not know if the projects listed in the done column are accepted or declined. Failure is starting a steering committee for lean with only top management present.

Innovators started Apple, Google and Zappos. Of course, they are open to change. The CEOs I know were pathetic. I would never buy one of their products.


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kevin kobett November 22, 2015

Failure is giving up. Failure is not an option!

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Peter Liepmann November 23, 2015
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"The takeaway here is that if you are trying to force a bigger, bolder, faster change program..."

The takeaway here is he's talking about 'bosses and workers', not 'leaders and team members,' about 'telling' instead of 'showing and teaching'.  This is hard to get our heads around.  Bosses have a vision of what they want, leaders have a vision of how they can help their customers.  

Leading is about sharing a vision, preparing people, and letting go. 

“To lead people, walk beside them ...
As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.
The next best, the people honor and praise.
The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate ...
When the best leader's work is done the people say,
We did it ourselves!” --Lao Tzu

Inspire people, give them the tools, and stand back.

Just my $0.02.

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Frank Coln November 30, 2015

So many good points....Articles like this are great reminders to evaluate your employees level of understanding.

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