Can you start a lean contagion?


Efforts to drive a lean transformation across an organization are difficult. Improvements in one area of the business often don't spread to other areas. Deep-seated resistance to change slows progress to a crawl or stops it entirely. Backsliding erases hard-won gains. But what if you could get lean to spread like a contagion? What if acceptance of lean, or even an outright embrace of lean (not the tools, but the mindset), could become like a virtuous epidemic?

Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, in their book Connected, posit that all kinds of behaviors and characteristics that we consider independently defined actually spread like a contagion. Take obesity, for example. After analyzing the Framingham Heart Study, they found that obese people tend to hang with other obese people, and thin people hang with thin people. (Birds of a feather, and all that business.)

More intriguingly, they found that there's a causal relationship: obesity spreads by contagion. So if your friend’s friend’s friend — whom you’ve never met, and lives a thousand miles away — gains weight, you’re likely to gain weight, too. And if your friend’s friend’s friend loses weight, you’re likely to lose weight, too.

How does it work? Scott Stossel explains in the NYTimes that

Partly, it’s a kind of peer pressure, or norming, effect, in which certain behaviors, or the social acceptance of certain behaviors, get transmitted across a network of acquaintances. In one example the authors give, Heather stops exercising and gains weight, which influences her friend Maria’s thinking about what normal weight is, so that when Maria’s other friend Amy (who has never met Heather) also stops her exercise regime, Maria is less likely to urge Amy to resume it. So Heather’s weight gain influences Amy’s, even though the two women never meet.

And it's not just obesity that can be contagious:

Christakis and Fowler explore network contagion in everything from back pain (higher incidence spread from West Germany to East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall) to suicide (well known to spread throughout communities on occasion) to sex practices (such as the growing prevalence of oral sex among teenagers) to politics (where the denser your network of connections, the more ideologically intense and intractable your beliefs are likely to be).

So this got me thinking: is it possible to spread lean throughout an organization like a contagion? Is it possible to have it take on a life of its own? After all, when you're looking at a value stream horizontally across an organization, you've got a great opportunity to have lean spread widely and quickly. In some respects, you even need lean to spread this way, because you're cutting across so many functional silos.

When I think about my work -- applying lean to individual behaviors -- I realize that this idea presents a huge opportunity. One person running a lean meeting, for example, has a chance to, um, infect up to a dozen other people in a company. A simple change in email processing policy (say, only four times a day) can touch hundreds of others. In fact, at Intel, Nathan Zeldes created blocks of time during each day that engineers could work without interruptions, and when word of the experiment spread, other regions demanded to be included in the program.

There's more research to be done in this area, though: some companies mandate email-free Fridays, but usually can't sustain it. And even Intel hasn't been entirely successful in maintaining the new behaviors. It's possible that those initiatives didn't start at a "hub" -- one of the “influenceable” nodes that are likely to spread a behavior most quickly. Or perhaps you need a critical mass to prevent recidivism.

What do you think? Could you take advantage of this idea of behavioral contagion to spread lean more quickly through your company?

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