In 2014, The Greening of Detroit (TGD), an environmental non-profit, was pushing hard to reforest the city after years of neglect. To their surprise, the tree planters faced stiff resistance—about 25% of the 7,500 homeowners they approached rejected the opportunity to have a free tree planted in front of their houses. 

Residents weren’t stupid—they understood that the trees provided more shade, better air quality, and increased property values—but they still elected not to have trees planted for them.

As Brentin Mock explains in his CityLab article, the well-meaning volunteers made several fundamental errors that explain why their efforts failed. And that explain why so many of our well-meaning lean improvements fail as well. 

1. The Arrogance of the Enlightened: the volunteers from TGD “presumed to know what’s best” for the poor communities. The trees are unquestionably good for those families, but no one was included in the decision-making and planning processes. Instead, the volunteers simply assumed that their noble efforts would be valued and welcomed. They decided unilaterally what kind of trees to plant, which neighborhoods to plant in, and what the maintenance protocols would be without any input from residents.

How often do executives, internal CI leaders, or external consultants make the same mistake? It’s true that lean does make work easier and safer, but we often don’t include the workers in the initial discussions about what lean is, why lean is important, why the organization has chosen this approach, and where the initial efforts will be made. Sure, workers are introduced to lean before changes are implemented, but by that time the decision to go down that road has already been made in a conference room with executives and lengthy Powerpoint presentations. It’s no surprise when they “resist change”—just like the Detroit residents rejected the trees. 

2. Ignorance of Context: Black and brown residents remember when the Detroit municipal government chopped down trees and flew helicopters over their neighborhoods following the race rebellion in 1967. They believed that the city was doing this to make it easier to surveil their “dangerous” communities. The city was actually trying to stop the spread of Dutch elm disease by spraying them with DDT and then cutting down the dead trees. Consequently, when TGD showed up to plant new trees, people were skeptical. As the author explains, “it’s not that they didn’t trust the trees; they didn’t trust the city.” 

Whether it’s the outside consultants or a new leadership team, the promoters of lean are often ignorant of the context of continuous improvement efforts in the organization. Perhaps people were laid off years earlier during an effort to get “lean and mean.” Or maybe continuous improvement was used to justify making people work harder and faster, with fewer resources. Regardless of how often the new management or consultant spouts the “respect for people” mantra, workers will be suspicious that it’s the same thing as before. 

3. Neglecting the Externalities: Planting trees is not a simple, one-time activity. Residents knew that they’d be responsible for the long-term care of the trees, such as watering and fertilizing them when they’re young, raking up leaves in the fall, dealing with sidewalk damage from spreading roots, and clearing fallen limbs after storms. Not all residents wanted that responsibility—or, at the very least, they wanted a voice in the decision-making process, since they’d be taking care of the trees. 

Too often we neglect the externalities of a lean transformation. It requires that workers either do their jobs faster so that they have time for improvement activities during the day, or that they stay late to do their improvement work. But it’s not fair to workers to ask them to take on these burdens without additional support. Not many companies follow the lead of Cambridge Engineering, which pays people overtime to do their improvement work if it can’t be done during their regular shifts. Not many companies give workers time off to develop public speaking skills or fundamental MS Office competence, even though those skills are useful in leading shop floor improvements. 

It can be baffling why employees don’t embrace lean. By all standard measurements, it makes work easier, safer, and more fulfilling for workers. But if people won’t accept free trees in their neighborhoods, it’s no surprise that getting them to accept lean isn’t easy. Yet Detroit’s experience with reforestation teaches us three valuable lessons:

  1. Bring workers into the earliest discussions about lean. Don’t wait until the leadership team has decided to do it. Involve them in the decision.

  2. Learn the history of past improvement efforts. Are certain words toxic, or loaded with hidden meaning? Did certain production lines, departments, or plants have particularly painful experiences in the past? Were employees hurt by earlier improvement efforts? This knowledge will help you anticipate and mitigate problems. 

  3. Consider the new burdens lean places on workers, not just the benefits it confers. You’ll need to provide them with more support so that they can fully engage in improvement. Extra skills training, overtime pay, early morning or late night transportation to and from work, etc. are important signals that you understand—and support—the commitment they’re making to the lean effort.