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Ask Art: Where Will the Biggest Resistance to Lean Come From?

by Art Byrne
July 17, 2019

Ask Art: Where Will the Biggest Resistance to Lean Come From?

by Art Byrne
July 17, 2019 | Comments (14)

While no more than 10 percent of Lean turnarounds will succeed, I know that 100 percent of them will be met with deep and widespread resistance. That’s been the case for every company I’ve transformed on my Lean journey. That’s why it’s so important to expect this and, rather than resist or resent this human response, prepare for the various forms of resistance you will face, and have countermeasures already on hand to deal with them.

Because Lean thinking is almost completely opposite the traditional way of thinking you should expect to encounter "While no more than 10 percent of Lean turnarounds will succeed, I know that 100 percent of them will be met with deep and widespread resistance."resistance from every part of your organization. Converting to Lean is all about people and this is what makes it difficult. People just don’t like to change. The fact that most companies that start down the Lean path see it as a cost reduction program or just a set of “tools” that can be used selectively to solve problems only compounds the problem. They miss the fact that Lean is a strategic approach to delivering more value to their customers. They also totally do not understand the “Lean is all about people” aspect of a Lean turnaround and thus make it far more difficult than it needs to be.

Even if you get the people part right you still will face resistance. Over the years I’ve constantly heard common refrains: “This will never work here.” “We are not like those other companies.”  “We tried something like this once and it failed.” I’ve found that resistance to Lean is rarely felt uniformly across the organization; tdifferent people and different functions will push back in their own unique way.

So let’s take a look at the various potential resistance points and what you might do to anticipate and overcome them.


Your senior management team will be a challenge. They all got to where they are by doing things a certain way, and they will want to continue their old approach. Most will see Lean as an operational thing that does not apply to them. Making it very clear to this team that Lean is not an option will help a little, but it will not change things all that much. Insisting that this team spend 5-6 full weeks per year on kaizen teams will help get them going in the right direction. The bigger hurdle here is to get them working as one team such that senior management speaks with one voice. This will take more time as they may be used to blaming other functions when things go wrong. You will have to stop this behavior. Make it clear that you will no longer referee their arguments. This, plus running many "learn-by-doing" activities in kaizens will eventually get them there.


While I have learned that lean can work well in organizations with a strong union presence, if you present Lean solely as a cost reduction plan then you will face fierce resistance from your work force or union (if you have one). Any time you propose major organizational change you will make your workforce and union nervous. At first, people will be convinced that this is just another approach to eliminate their jobs. That’s why you can’t even think about doing Lean without publicly and consistently guaranteeing that no one will be laid off as a result of kaizen activities. They won’t believe you at first so you’ll have to show them. Next, make sure to have a mix of hourly and salaried people (50-50 works the best) on the kaizen teams so they clearly understand that your primary goal is remove the waste—with their input and participation. They will have the best ideas of how to do this so make sure you listen and implement their ideas. As their work gets easier and safer (a 5-minute changeover takes less work and is much safer than a 3-hour changeover—which they will immediately understand), they will quickly drop their resistance and become Lean champions. This is the easiest group to convert to Lean thinking if you do it right. A profit sharing plan where they can share in the gains would be a big plus here. 


Your sales and marketing force will initially assume that Lean is “some operational thing” that doesn’t apply to them. They won’t resist doing Lean in other parts of the company; but they will insist that they be left alone to do things the way they always have. You cannot let this happen. These individuals play a vital role in the company, and in fact they have an enormous impact on operations on rest of the company. They will have to change, to become as Lean as everyone else, because failing to do so will cripple your Lean efforts. The incentives that drive the sales team frequently reward behavior that stymies Lean in other parts of the company. For example, if sales incentives result in 50% of your shipments happening in the last week of the month, you are creating an impossible condition for your people in operations, who are trying to move from batching to one piece flow and trying to level load the factory.

In other words, you cannot have one department seeking large batch type orders—and in fact promoting that activity by allowing them to give volume discounts to get them—when the rest of the company is trying to reduce lead time and cut setup time in order to be able to quickly respond to mix changes. The sales and marketing teams need to be on the same (Lean) page as everyone else. They must be willing to change sales terms—especially if current policy causes 50 percent of the orders to ship in the last week of the month. They have to be willing to help your customers reduce their inventory and stop ordering in big batches. This is not a gimme, to be sure. But, if you put the sales and marketing teams on the early kaizens so they can start to understand the impact of their own actions, and you work with them to make the policy decisions needed for Lean, you will find that their resistance will quickly go away and they will become Lean advocates, selling the enormous benefits of Lean to your customers.


I think that most people understand that about 80 percent of a product’s ultimate cost is determined during the design stage. It is also true that the traditional design approach is excessively iterative, takes too long and is so disconnected to operations that at the end of the process the people in operations will say: “You want me to build that? How can we do that?” And, these traditional companies will pursue new products that come from the voice of the CEO or the VP of Engineering—and not the voice of the customer. Engineering will behave like sales and marketing: you won’t get a lot of pushback about Lean, as long as they can keep doing what they have been doing.

"Most finance people and teams are committed to their traditional standard cost accounting and will fight like crazy to keep it." Of course you can’t let this happen. At Wiremold we changed to the QFD (Quality Function Deployment) approach to new products when we started Lean. We created cross-functional teams of marketing, operations and engineering for all new products and brought the voice of the customer into the process up front, in the conceptual stage. We also decided to hire all our new product development engineers right out of grad school. We put them on the shop floor learning Lean, and understanding our capabilities, for two years before they had a chance to move into product design. We didn’t want them designing things we couldn’t make. These changes pretty much eliminated any resistance to Lean from engineering.


If you can count on anything regarding a Lean transformation, you can count on a battle with finance, which for most companies is likely to feel like Resistance Central. Most finance people and teams are committed to their traditional standard cost accounting and will fight like crazy to keep it. They will give you a surplus of great excuses (none of which will be true but will give you pause). “Our auditors will never let us change our standard cost approach.” Or, “The IRS forces us to absorb inventory in a certain way.” The truth is that standard cost accounting is what I call the anti-lean as it incentivizes almost everything that you are using Lean to eliminate. You need to switch to “plain English or Lean accounting” early on to be successful in your conversion. In my experience, putting your key finance personnel on early kaizen events is perhaps the best approach to solve this problem. This gives them a chance to see things from a different perspective. There are good books (my Wiremold CFO Orry Fiume and Lantech CFO Jean Cunningham wrote one of the first and best ones, Real Numbers) to read and lean accounting seminars and training sessions that you can send them to. Be patient--but make sure that you get rid of standard cost accounting.


In my experience, you can expect the most consistent resistance to change from your middle managers, who as a group are perhaps the most threatened by the shift to Lean. They traditionally ran functional departments where they were seen as the expert, able to exercise authority without anyone challenging them. Lean requires an organizational (and radical) shift to a value stream structure, requiring input from all employees on how to remove waste. No more “check your brains at the door.” Managers must acknowledge the need for the hourly work force to be constantly engaged in contributing ideas on how to remove the waste. Most traditional managers don’t know how to deal with this shift. They try to go on behaving in an authoritarian way. They have trouble seeing the necessity for change; and others cannot easily understand how to do it.The message from the top is to work Lean; but the message they may be delivering to the people on the shop floor every day is traditional batch.

This is a tough challenge, and you can close the gap with a lot of training and close monitoring of these middle managers. Being on many kaizen teams will help. Even so, we found it necessary to add a few questions to our annual employee survey that allowed the workforce to give us direct feedback on their supervisors. This helped us know who we had to spend extra time with.


Resistance to Lean will come from every part of your organization, senior management included. Knowing where the biggest resistance will come from, however should help you focus your early efforts and smooth your Lean turnaround.

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14 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani July 17, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this comment

This is a vitally important problem, one that is far more complex than people realize. The future of Lean depends on its resolution, and therefore all Lean practitioners should have a strong interest in this topic. For in-depth analysis on the sources and causes of executive resistance to Lean, please see https://bit.ly/2JL46cm. Importantly, the middle manager problem looks quite different when viewed from their perspective https://bit.ly/2XJ1yFr. Also see Steve Leuschel new book on this topic https://amzn.to/2XV7AOq. The better one understands the problem, the more likely it can be solved. These three works will inspire people to identify many new countermeasures to increase the number of Lean transformation successes.

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art byrne July 17, 2019
2 People AGREE with this reply

Bob, thanks for your comments and additions. Your reference to how middle managers look at this [https://bit.ly/2XJ1yFr.] gives some excellent insight all of which I agree with. If senior management is not hands on out front leading by example it should be no surprise that getting middle management on board will be difficult. We didn't have that problem at Wiremold. Your other observation in the referenced article about lean transformations that go too slow is also on point. A slow lean implementation raises questions in the organization about whether management is serious about this or if it is just another "program of the month." More importantly, the slower you go, the longer you will have to run the company on two completely opposite systems; the traditinal batch, MRP, make-the-forecast approach vs. the kanban pull approach. As the old saying goes it is difficult to be half pregnant and so no one should be surprised that middle managers will go with what they know, i.e. the old system.

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Paul Critchley July 17, 2019

Hi Art,

Always look forward to your posts!

When it comes to Lean resistance (or any resistance for that matter), I always like to say that "People resist being changed", vs. "People don't like change".

Based upon your experiences, would you tend to agree with this, or no? Do you think things like pride, trust and fear play parts in why people resist, and are these universal across the board, or would you expect to see these in differing amounts based upon a person's level within the organization?

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Bob Emiliani July 17, 2019
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Hi Paul - If I may jump in and offer an answer to your questions. Pride, trust and fear certainly do play a part in why people resist. But, these are surface-level phenomena. One must dig deeper into the many details to determine what causes them. Exposing these details have been the focus of my work for the last decade, resulting in substantial progress towards understanding this problem.

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art byrne July 17, 2019
3 People AGREE with this reply

Paul, thanks for your comments. I think saying "people resist being changed" is perhaps a better way to say it. In fact, I don't think that people on their own fear or are unwilling to change. After all they take vacations to places they have never been, they move to new parts of the country, and even switch companies looking for new opportunities. What is scary is changes to a system/job you are familiar with. Will it work? Will it affect my job? Could I get fired? Etc. How these things effect individuals I think does vary depending on their level in the organization. For example the operator on the shop floor will be more worried about loosing his/her job than the say, VP of Sales. Even so the VP of Sales will have to make significant changes in the way he operates, like changing the sales terms, stop selling big batch orders, stop giving discounts for product sold into a distributors stock, that may be completly against what he has learned over time. I always say that implementing lean is nothing but a contiuous series of "leaps of faith" into the unknown. Every time you rearrange equipment or change a process the question is always in the back of your mind, "but what if this doesn't work?"

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Steve Williams July 18, 2019

Thanks for your post that identifies one of the key blockers (or enablers depending on how you view it) to effective integration of Lean into any organisation. As you mention, resistance to being changed is normal and shouldn’t be a surprise but many Lean, transformation and change programmes fail because of an inability to understand the importance of human factors.


I have worked with organisations who have approached the challenge very differently and have got very different results and for me it is about engagement, inclusion and communication and in my opinion it starts from the top. Here’s why:


Various research highlights that anywhere between 50% - 80% of change and transformation programmes fail to achieve their aims. 70% of the failures are linked to two causes that include ‘employee resistance to change’ and ‘leadership behaviours that do not support the change’. This comes down to leaders and those with influence role modelling the correct behaviours or ‘walking the talk’. Asking people who may have been in the organisation for decades to challenge themselves, to think differently about how they view customer value and fundamentally rethink ‘how they work’ to deliver it is a big ask.


Change needs to happen and be seen happening at all levels, sending a genuine‘we’re all in this together’ message that reinforces the change in how things are done. If there is no change in the language and more importantly behaviours of influential individuals and leaders within an organisation that is promoting change, it can create resentment among employees, that is a factor in resistance to change. After all, if I personally see and hear others (regardless of level) challenging themselves, recognising opportunities for improvement in their areas, teams and functions and also doing things differently then I am more inclined to engage fully with the change, whatever that may be. On the other hand if I look around and I see that the compelling need for change in mind sets, behaviours and ways of working only applies to a certain function or level of the business then I immediately feel that there is unfairness and possibly a slight ‘us and them’ situation where not everyone has to embrace change and challenge themselves to improve.


We know that through the inverted pyramid model that leadership exist to support the organisation in serving the customer. In the context of effective integration of Lean principles into any organisation leadership behaviours are for me, one of, if not the single most critical success factors. Thanks for a very thought provoking post and apologies for the long response.

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art byrne July 18, 2019

Steve, thanks for your comments and nice adds to the post. I agree with you that "lean is all about people". What you are trying to transform is the people. Unfortunately, most companies seem to miss this completly and feel they can implement lean by simply issuing the order from the CEO's office like they do in all traditional management programs and expect it to work. Just having senior management say "we fully support this effort" then go back in their offices and continue life as normal will always fail. To be successful requires the whole leadership team to be out front, hands on engaged in lots of kaizens. A big hurdle here is that because maybe 90% of the companies that start down the lean path just see it as a cost reduction program or "some manufacturing thing" they feel that the rest of the organization can just continue on under their old batch ways. This will just cause hugh conflicts within the organization and lean will fail. If management can't start by understanding a] that lean is the strategy and b] that everything [every function] in the company must change then the lean failure rate will continue to be very high.

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Mark Graban July 19, 2019

As the "Motivational Interviewing" methodology teaches us, "resistance" is a NORMAL part of any change process.

I suggest that people check out the LEI webinar that former Toyota leader Ron Oslin did a few years back. It's very insightful:


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Bob Emiliani July 19, 2019

Hi Mark - I don't think anybody dipsutes that resistance to Lean is normal. What is missing is the sources and causes of resistance -- beyond the surafce level, which I have provided in my TCM book. 

As Ohno reportedly said: “The president must be showing resistance because of his own convictions. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, it is wrong for you to make a judgment without learning his reasons. He must have his own strong beliefs and logics toward how his company should be run. Instead of convincing him of your idea, learn from such an unbreakable dedication to his own principles.” - Taiichi Ohno quoted in The Toyota Mindset: The Ten Commandments of Taiichi Ohno, Yoshihito Wakamatsu, Enna Products Co., 2009, p. 158

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Mark Graban July 26, 2019

Bob, I disagree. I hear complaints about "resistance to Lean" all the time and it's quite often in the context of blaming those who are resistance. This happens a lot. I don't think everybody agrees that resistance is normal or to be expected.

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Mark Graban July 26, 2019

But, Bob, I do agree that we shouldn't judge people for their reaction or resistance.

The resistance can have roots in logic, society, or psychology. The most challenging situations, I think, are when people logically and rationally agree with what they need to do... but they also have reasons NOT to change... or they are scared or not confident enough. Those are the situations where Motivational Interviewing is very helpful, when people are "ambivalent" about changing.

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art byrne July 19, 2019

Mark, thanks for your input and adds to the post. Sometimes I think that if we called "reaction" to change rather than "resistance" that we might have a better chance of understanding peoples thoughts which would give a better chance to develop counter measures. We can debate all this forever but the one thing that I believe is a constant is that you can't do lean or any other major change unless it is led from the top in an out front, hands on way.

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Brian July 22, 2019

I originally applied on a secondary thread that  the author maybe won’t see, so I’m posting the same general comment here.  I don’t agree that Lean methodology, as generally implemented, is “all about the people.”  That is definitely the preferred course of action, but I just haven’t seen it done this way.  I’m curious why you believe that is that case.  The methodology has come too far to try and correct for its biggest weakness through a midstream rebranding...

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art byrne July 23, 2019

Brian, your right, I didn't see your comments before. It seems that you belive that implementing lean should be "all about the people."  You say this is the "prefered course of action" but you just haven't seen it done this way. You are probably correct that most lean implementations, over 90% by my estimate, are about cost reduction by eliminating the need for people. This by the way is why most lean implementations fail. Companies try to implement lean using their traditional, top down, batch management approaches. But just because this is the case doesn't mean that there needs to be a "midstream rebranding" of lean. Implementing lean has always been 'all about people". In order to remove the waste and deliver more value to your customers the thing that needs to be transformed is the people. You need to show them how to see and remove the waste and to change their thinking and become a coheisive team. The fact that most companies don't think of this and don't do it this way doesn't make them right. In fact, the high failure rate shows just the opposite.

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