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How Do I Convince People to Practice Lean?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I have previous lean experience, and have now joined a large bureaucratic organization. I’m trying to apply the lean approach, but the management team and business culture remains stubbornly public sector in their thinking. Any advice on how to crack this issue?

To start with, I'd recommend that you learn more about the work being done by the Thedacare center for Healthcare Value. CEO John Toussaint is one of the few people to have brought lean to a large bureaucratic organization (in his case, several hospitals), and his experience in this area is enlightening.

Reading about lean is of course the easy part. Doing leanis where it counts. For that let's go to the Gemba. Allow me to rephrase your question: how can you convince anyone that your way is the best way, especially when they can use their experience as validation of their approach in this environment? I believe that the best approach to this problem is to examine our models of how people are convinced, and then see if we're going about it the right way.

First of all, to take a philosophical approach (and bear with me, I am French!): can we ever really convince someone else of anything? In terms of changing their deeply-held beliefs by the force of your own argument … I believe the answer is overwhelmingly "no." We can force people to do things, but we can't convince them of anything. Only they can do so - people convince themselves, period. So, if we can't convince, how can we influence? How can we get someone to convince themselves? There are five broad paths that achieve this goal. The first is to find out oneself by doing. The second is to be influenced by one's peer group. The third is seeing and understanding. The fourth is to reason it out. There's a fifth path in which one convinces oneself beyond reason - coming to believe something that flows from a deeply held principle. So how can any of these paths work out in the case of trying to convince someone of a lean approach?

The first path, and probably the most convincing, is doing the thing oneself. This is very powerful because our brains work full time at convincing us that we're right and that we're okay (the only people truly realistic about themselves are the chronically depressed). So, the moment you've invested time in something, your brain will tell you that you were right to do so, and that it was the right thing to do (hence, others should do it as well). Consequently, the high road to convincing a manager to look further into lean is to get them to participate in kaizen workshops - more than one if possible. For this tack to work you've got to 1) prep them carefully and 2) make sure the kaizen event they participate in is positive (good coach, good team) and demonstrative. If they're not wowed by the kaizen event, forget about that person and move to the next.

One reason change often takes place when driven from the top is that you can't force someone to change their mind, but you can force them to act in a new way. This is the principle of "forced conversion", which, unhappily, has many historical precedents. As your boss, I can't convince you to believe in (or understand) lean, but I can certainly force you to apply some of the lean tools. Chances are that by applying them, you'll bring yourself to change your mind one step at a time also. Further chances are that if you remain unconvinced, and I continue to insist you apply the tools, you'll choose to find work elsewhere, because it's really uncomfortable to be at loggerheads with one's boss. For many middle-managers, the path of least resistance is to pretend to do lean by carrying out a few "meeting room" activities, such as value stream mapping exercises without ever changing the process, or minimal 5S activity, and other sorts of window dressing in the plant or the office. Don't knock it. Even a small step is a step, and gives you a base on which to build a discussion. The real difficulty is when they won't do … anything.

On this topic as well, senior managers are also in charge of the incentive scheme in place in the company. Let's not forget that this is a heavyweight argument, and having a bonus scheme skewed towards lean results does act as a powerful convincer (no accidents, 50% reduction in quality complaints, 25% inventory reduction, 15% productivity improvement in two years, typically). One word of caution though, experience shows that if you put in place such an incentive system, the immediate reaction of many, not surprisingly, is to try to "game" the system. They will continue with the old behavior while finding ways to hit the new goals. We've all got many examples of the funny, or not-so-funny situation this can trigger, and how creative people can be at doing anything but the lean thing. As a rule of thumb, for any incentive scheme, I check the three "Cs" of confidence: am I confident I can achieve this? Am I confident that if I do, I will get the proposed reward? Am I confident that the proposed reward will actually satisfy me? As you can see, applying this rule of thumb to lean involvement can be tricky indeed.

The second path to convincing oneself is being influenced by one's peer group. Think about casual Friday, if you have this in your company. You might have reasons why you enjoy wearing your suit - it's a protection (you wear it as an armor between you and the job), it's easy to pick in the morning (you've got your attire well organized), etc. Now comes casual Friday where everyone must show up in semi-casual clothes. You decide that this is silly and come to work with your usual suit jacket and skirt, but every one else, including your boss, is in jeans and checkered shirt, and they all look at you with something between an indulgent grin and a smirk. You won't make that mistake twice. Lean works the same. Imagine that one team has turned around an operation, making it leaner and leaner. You like the performance numbers so you want it to spread to the rest of the organization. What do you do? 1) You split up the team and send each member as an emissary to another operation or division for them to do the missionary work or 2) you ask them to install a good replacement team, and, as a team, you give them a second operation to turn around. The first option might seem much faster, but it's also much riskier. The "lean" person on the team will suddenly find herself or himself surrounded by non-lean colleagues, which raises the odds that they'll soon drop the lean ball for fear of having their peer group turn against them. On the other hand, installing a good replacement team might seem a lot slower, but it’s money in the bank. The team (the peer group) will only get stronger and stronger, be demonstrative, and train lean people all at the same time. The tortoise will beat the hare every time. When you're trying to convince someone of doing lean, be mindful of their peer group and try to create opportunities for them to meet people they'd consider to be peers doing lean. Dragging them with you to a lean conference is a good first step, not for what they'll learn, but so that they find themselves surrounded with committed managers who take this lean thing seriously.

The third path is somewhere in between the two first, and the one probably most sought after by people to trying to convince others to do lean. It's show and tell. The idea is that if you demonstrate a powerful example of lean, the person will convince himself or herself it's worth a try. Historically, this third path does not have a good track record in lean, and visiting "benchmark" lean factories, offices or companies, has a poor conversion hit rate. It works better within one's own organization (if not, different context invalidates the experience easily). But here, let's apply lean to one self. Is what you have to show really lean? Or is it something you're convinced of that you've passed off as leaner?

To be convincing on this lean approach, first challenge yourself. On your lean example:

  1. Are issues singled out one at a time and tackled through a team PDCA?
  2. Is performance measured in a demonstrative way? Do they have clear results?
  3. Do people have a clear understanding of the current situation and can they describe their target in terms of performance and process?
  4. Do they have a clear theory about what goes on, and how to test it?
  5. Do they progress by trying one thing at a time, and learning from it?
  6. Do they own the improvements? Do they feel engaged and enthused?

Bear in mind that if they're not convinced to start with, showing them lean "stuff" (value stream Maps, Visual Management Boards, Kanbans, etc.) will not convince them. For the demonstration to be, well, demonstrative, it needs to make sense in their terms. The usual management framework is ROI, so your demonstration must show clearly what are the financial returns and what was the investment. As we all know, lean doesn't naturally work that way, so that's quite a challenge.

The fourth path is to reason it out. Smart people will make up their mind even without hands-on experience or "know it when I see it" evidence by reasoning things out until they are convinced their reasoning is correct. On this front, we lean guys have been the most remiss. Most of our explanations are lean-consistent: they tend to assume that people have accepted basic lean premises such as value streams, kaizen and people involvement. Our arguments tend clarify our understanding of lean and reinforce our own conviction, but rarely to bridge the gap with managers from the non-lean world of managing-by-numbers reporting, "throw it over the wall" functional silos and management-by-objectives. On this topic, I can recommend McKinsey's book Journey To Lean by John Drew, Blair McCallum and Stefan Roggenhofer as a serious attempt to bridge the gap between financial indicators such as ROCE and lean issues. I firmly believe that all of us in the lean field would benefit from better understanding financial ratios and budgetary mechanics, to be able to speak more convincingly to hard-nosed, financial driven managers.

Finally, the fifth path, convincing oneself of lean because it fits with profound personal beliefs, is more frequent than one would think. One CEO I work with got into lean because it appealed to his own work ethic in terms of Respect-for-people and he had not hitherto found any management approach that addressed that issue in such a thorough and systematic manner. Another CEO I work with got interested in lean because of his prior commitment to the Organizational Learning movement, disenchantment with the lack of practicality of many of the OD proposals, and enthusiasm for lean as a practical, applicable system of organizational learning. Both of these CEOs are outstanding persons with very strong work ethics, and I am privileged to work with both of them. The one drawback of using values as a basis for lean is that as lean is a consistent system, a structured method, and some aspects will work well with pre-existing values, while some will not. To take a Gemba example, it's common practice to get employee participation by allowing employees to manage their own working hours, to increase responsibility and commitment by letting people be better in their personal lives. However, this flatly contradicts the lean approach to stable teams, where, as in a sports match, all players start at the same time, quit at the same time and take their breaks at the same time to maximize their team game. In another case, I've seen several plant managers previously convinced by the theory of constraint's focus on bottlenecks who’d happily put injection presses in flow with assembly, losing 50% OEE in the process, for the sake of "flow." Still, deeply held values are powerful, and demonstrating how lean fits with someone's pre-existing values can make a convincing case.

The upshot of this discussion is that there is no one best way to convince one person. Success remains the most convincing argument in all dimensions: success in getting someone to try, success amongst a peer group, success in demonstrative business cases, success in clear reasoning and success in fitting with values. Because no two people are the same, if we're serious about convincing others, we'll apply lean to ourselves and start a PDCA example. The fist step will be giving ourselves a target list of who we want to convince by when, and flesh out, say in one short scenario, a description of what exactly we have in mind by "convinced". We can then draw a plan for every person, and test our theories about what convinces them case by case. Then check and reflect.

This is an excellent question, and thank you for asking it, because this is precisely the sort of issue that confronts anybody doing lean for real in their company. On the others hand, such topics have rarely been studied in depth, other than through swapping anecdotes and cafeteria debates. I've outlined my five-factor theory of convincing someone, but am keen to hear of any case where something else happened and the theory doesn’t apply. Convincing is such an important part of our lean role, that I am convinced (no pun intended) that we need to learn a whole lot more about how to convince. Please let me know what you think!

5 Comments | Post a Comment
Mahendiran October 8, 2009
Great thought. Thanks for putting everything together in one article.
Anonymous October 26, 2009
Excellent review on a very common issue Michael. In my own environment the common approach is the show and tell version. I believe you're right, not all folks will be convinced this way even if your results are big and in their face. I agree that a lot of thought needs to go into who you are trying to convince and what is the best way to achieve that with each person. Very good article and thoughts to dwell on.
divu November 2, 2009
I am another guy failed to convince my Bosses for implementing Layout redesign as a part of Lean efforts for the last 10 long years.Unless and until there is pressure to perform and accountability for the failures, you are in comfort zone. No deviation from beaten path. Keep your efforts with patience
Lucie November 17, 2009
Michael, thanks for this explanation, very recognizable. I hear a lot of organisations who think can start without the support of the management(team). All of them come back on this and have to take effort in convincing people. We have the same experience as you mention here: do it and show some results!
Salim Reza September 11, 2017

Thank sir feel fresh to think about convincing our personnel because  few months I can not even want to think about convincing.??????

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