Home > Gemba Coach> What is your psychology of change?

What is your psychology of change?

Permalink   |   2 Comments   |   Post a Comment   |  
  |   RSS

Dear Gemba Coach,

Do you have a psychology of change? And if so, what is it? Where should we start?

Thank you for this fascinating question. Yes, indeed, on the Gemba I keep kidding people that they have a theory for every technical system, but no clear theory on what makes people tick – although people are a manager’s main production resource (hate that word, but you know what I mean. Asset, really).

Where to start? Why would anyone accept changing – which is typically hard work – and more than that, why would they change in the direction you’d like them to?

As a starting point, can we accept that humans can’t help attributing causes to events, which they mostly categorize as successes (I want this to continue) or failures (I’d rather avoid that in the future). There is also an in-built bias that makes us tend to attribute successes to our own actions and failures to something external that happened out there (though by all means there are a lot of screwy pathologies around that). We also find it incredibly hard to accept the huge part sheer luck plays in events – we need causes.

By and large, the starting point is that we all tend to want to keep to our current habits, hoping the outcomes will somehow change and go our way. As the universe seldom cooperates, we occasionally face the need to change.

A lot of business change theory seems to work on the assumption that people will rationally link a habit to an outcome, say out loud their desire for a different outcome, and then decide to change their habit in order to reach it. This works in straightforward cases, such as deciding I’m overweight, starting to change my eating habits by stopping nibbling (try stopping nibbling when you’re a writer – it’s hell, because the brain consumes a lot of blood sugar as you write), and then moving on to a more balanced diet, more exercise, and losing weight. This would be rational change.

Group Grudge

As a young man, I was fortunate to meet and correspond with the famous American sociologist Robert King Merton, and his words stuck with me, as I can observe this every day on the Gemba – there are few stronger driving forces of human behavior than Us versus Them. We’re capable of the greatest changes, without even realizing what we’re doing, to be accepted by the target peer group we want to join.

Lean, for instance, creates a peer group of those who believe that “kaizen will change the world.” This peer group faces the group of “don’t rock the boat and all will be well,” and the other group of “we need to radically restructure everything to turn things around.”

Peer groups define themselves around practices that tend to be mutually exclusive. Food taboos, for instance, ensure that you can only eat with your peer group. If you want to join the vegan peer group, you have to forego having meals with regular people, because most meals include meat in some form or shape in our society. In lean, actively participating in a kaizen event, or making a suggestion is not compatible with keeping your head down and your nose clean and not making waves.

From this perspective, the change question to ask is not so much which behavior change we’re looking at, but which peer group people want to join. You’re a smoker, you want to become a non-smoker. Focusing on the single act of smoking is generally doomed to fail. One has to consider the bundle of behaviors that go with smoking (a stress relieving, social bonding moment, that can also give you alone time for yourself, but is increasingly frowned upon and excludes you from many public spaces) as well as the bundle of behaviors that go with non-smoking (handling stress, social bonding, and time to oneself differently).

However, although we are social creatures, we’re not completely irrational either. Because of the pain involved with changing habits, people will struggle with the following trade-off:

I’d really like to be accepted as part of this new peer group, but they demand much of me, so I need to be reassured that 1/ I can eventually get accepted, 2/ I’ll really like it when I am, and 3/ this will overall benefit me more than it will cost me in the long run.

For instance, on the Gemba, one CEO I know is really struggling with his financial director, who adamantly refuses to change the way she does the reporting to be more in line with the lean effort and adopt basic lean accounting practices. This, at first was incomprehensible as she’s a good friend, who is smart and open-minded on many other topics. And willing to work very hard. Eventually, the CEO realized that the CFO ’s reference point was the external auditors – the peer group she really looked up to. In her mind, she is protecting the CEO from this lean nonsense, while giving the auditors the kind of accounts, reporting, and actions she thinks they look for.

As this has been going on for quite a while, her relationship with her CEO is now being threatened, and she feels miserable about that. The CEO is increasingly frustrated by her inability or lack of will (always hard to distinguish will/skill issues) to help him where he really needs help from finance – but clings to the fact that her first priority is getting the accounts approved. Which is true as well. Dead end.

Unless the CEO succeeds in convincing her that joining his band of crazy lean thinkers will 1/ be fun, 2/ is possible, 3/ will actually turn out to be fun for her, and 4/ might even benefit her professionally, she will not engage her initiative and ingenuity in finding ways to do both lean accounting and keeping the auditors happy.

Are You “Worthy”?

Thinking this way can lead us to radically rethink our change theory. The classical change theory was built on behaviorism:

  1. Narrow down the specific behavior you want to change in a person,
  2. Explain why you want them to change and try to reach them intellectually (from where they are in their minds, to what you want them to understand),
  3. Give them an incentive – both a positive one if they do, and a threat if they don’t,
  4. Failing change, force them to change step-by-step hoping they’ll eventually get it and switch.

This is “change management.”

The alternative is making switching peer groups more attractive – and letting change happen on its own, carried by the person herself. And, if you’re a leader of this change, this means working on yourself to be more attractive.

Which brings us to a very different angle: rather than worry about how to get followers to change, think about how to make leaders more worthy of these changes.

Current social theory finds that to be a more “followable” leader you need to demonstrate two qualities: competence and trustworthiness.

People need to find their leaders competent. This is not a reflection on the actual competence of the leader, but on perceived competence:

  • The ability to show short-term gains,
  • With a theory that makes sense.

And clearly, one person’s leader is someone else’s disaster as people don’t necessarily agree on what is a gain (versus a step backward) and what makes sense (versus what sounds plainly loony), which brings us back to choosing one’s peer group.

People also need to find their leaders trustworthy, which means to believe that whatever the solution the leader has in mind, it involves them.

For instance, in one surprising case of a plant closure in a Nordic country, moving production to the Far East went together with very high engagement scores, even among people losing their production jobs. The severance package was a year’s salary and support to find another job. In this case, although the solution (close the plant) seemed against people interests, they nevertheless felt that their interests were well taken into consideration and well met. So they actually helped in transferring production, in order to move on to their new situation and new job with cash in hand.

Perceived trustworthiness, is built on the feeling that:

  • This person knows who I am,
  • Their solution includes me.

To answer your question directly, my theory of the psychology of change does not actually involve getting one person to change – I don’t know if anyone knows how to make it happen. It involves creating the conditions for change.

If I want to get the janitor to adopt lean (or the suppliers, which is a key issue), I will start with a leader keen to adopt lean. Then I’ll work on that person’s perceived competence (which lean really helps to do through just-in-time and genchi genbutsu – going to see the workplace to find problems and supporting people’s initiatives to solve them), and perceived trustworthiness (which lean also helps with through respect-for-people and genchi genbutsu again).

Then the leader will need to spot managers in the organization that have a natural feel for lean and kaizen and enjoy visualizing processes, looking for a better way to do things and developing people (there are always some), which creates a “lean” peer group (although rarely aligned with the hierarchical organization).

Then make it more attractive to join this peer group by, again, demonstrating competence and trustworthiness in helping them get things done, advancing in their careers, and connecting them together to achieve both short-term gains and long-term improvement.

To leverage and accelerate this change, make sure the “lean thinking” managers cascade this and develop their own team leaders based on their taste for looking for a better way and better working with their teams, so that, as soon as possible, everyone in the organization has a concrete example of a lean leader in their immediate environment – including the janitor.

And then hope you get lucky.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Oli June 11, 2018


This seems an excellent model of change, and implies that rather than searching for authorisation from executives exclusively, we should be trying to build a peer group.

We're not then trying to 'make' people change but inviting them to join the club. The CEO can definitely lend legitimacy to the club, but this is not a necessity for the type of change process you are describing.

This also seems to fit well with the approach Paul Akers describes, which is really becoming a model student of Lean and inviting people along.

That's how I interpreted your article anyway, thanks for the inspiration!

Mark Graban June 11, 2018

Psychology... people are complex and complicated. That's why I recommend a book like "Motivational Interviewing for Leadership" or the great webinar that Ron Oslin did for LEI not long ago on this subject.


There are many reasons why people cling to their old way, even when a new way is logically or rationally better.

I think part of "respect for people" means respecting our human nature and not blaming people for being resistant to change.

Other Michael Ballé Related Content

Gold Mine Master Class



  • Are You Narrowing Your Problems Down?
    "Rationality did not lay in higher reasoning powers, in visionary schemes, but in the ability to narrow down problems until one reached the nitty-gritty level at which one could actually do something about them," writes the protagonist of Michael Balle's The Gold Mine.
  • Lead With Respect Shares Tangible Practices That Develop Others, Says Author Michael Balle
    Michael and Freddy Balle's book Lead With Respect portrays on-the-job behaviors of lean leaders which can be learned through practice. Michael explains how these can help fulfill the promise of lean by aligning the company’s success to individual fulfillment.
  • How Can Lean Affect Shareholder Value?
    Lean can help challenge assumptions and surface opinions that ultimately improve shareholder value, argues Michael Balle.