Is your environment helping your lean efforts?


Many lean transformations (and more broadly, "change management initiatives") fail because the organizational environment isn't conducive to making and sustaining that change. As a result, it's tough for people in that environment to alter their behaviors.

A case in point: at a company I once worked at, we had a consulting group come in and tell us (for a large fee, of course) that lack of clear communication from the exec team was one of the behaviors causing problems. They advocated open door policies for individuals, and avoidance of closed-door meetings for the team. Ironically, this advice was given in a closed door meeting with the execs -- and that should tell you just how far this idea went.

There were a lot of causes of this behavior, but one of the main reasons is that the exec team spent a lot of money outfitting a really swank executive meeting room: big leather chairs, nice wooden table, fancy conference call hardware, cut glass pitchers, etc. If you were an executive, wouldn't you want to have meetings in there?  And their individual offices were pretty fancy, too, which created an unfortunate tendency for them to stay sequestered in their well-equipped digs.

If you want people to change their behaviors, you have to make it easy for them to change. And you have to make them *want* to change. In a recent Harvard Business Publishing article, Peter Bregman describes how he wanted to eat outdoors more when he moved to Savannah, GA. He dutifully set up a table and chairs outside the French doors leading to the kitchen. And they never used it. Apparently, the 10 foot walk from the kitchen to the table was too much. His solution? Move the table right outside the doors. After that, his family ate every meal outdoors. Ten feet was all the difference.

Bregman tells the following story:

One of my clients wanted everyone in the company to fill out a time sheet, and they were having a very hard time getting people to do it. Their mindset was compliance. They made it very clear that people didn't have a choice. Everyone was required to do it. That worked for about half the employee population. The rest simply ignored it.

The leaders were about to send out a memo saying no one would get paid unless the time sheet was handed in. But wait, I asked, do we know why they aren't doing the time sheet? We assumed it was because people didn't care. But we asked around anyway.

Well, it turns out that people didn't mind the idea of filling out a timesheet, but they were frustrated by the technology. The online system required people to go through a series of steps (a wizard) in order to put their time in. It was meant to help them, but it took longer and needlessly delayed them. Not by much -- 10 seconds at most -- but that was enough to dissuade 50% of the people from following through.

Once we changed the form and the technology it was on, everyone started using it. They weren't being defiant. They simply weren't walking the 10 feet and four steps to the table. The solution isn't to explain to people why they should take the walk or force them to take the walk. The solution is far simpler: move the table.

This is lean thinking at its best: showing respect for people and creating a simple, no-cost solution to a problem. (Not quite lean at its best: the employees should have been in charge of changing the form and the technology.)

Now, think about the lean initiatives that you've undertaken that aren't being accepted. Is it possible that the environment isn't conducive to adopting those changes?

Think about 5S. What would happen if you reduced the number of filing cabinets in the office, or had people use smaller desks: would that reduce the amount of useless crap that people hoarded? I once wrote about the president of a custom prosthetic company in Seattle who gets a smaller desk every year in order to keep him from accumulating junk. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all, even if it's just on your desk.

Better yet, what would happen if you set up offices from the start to support 5S, with clear areas marked for Working, Reference, and Archive files? That would certainly increase the adoption of administrative 5S.

Do people have whiteboards in their offices to make their knowledge work visible (a la Jon Miller's experiments with a kanban system -- here, here, and here)? Have you tried Nielsen's trick of disabling the "Reply All" function within Outlook?

Think about it: how can you make people want to change?

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