I’ve been struggling to resolve two conflicting facts:

  • Science has shown that incremental change is both easier for people and more sustainable than dramatic change.
  • Art Byrne has had undeniable business success by starting with dramatic change.

For those who don’t know, Art Byrne has a remarkable track record of success leading lean transformations at Danaher, Wiremold, and as a private equity investor at JW Childs. He describes his “shock and awe” approach (my terminology) in his excellent book The Lean Turnaround, where he takes the company through several week-long kaizen events. To be sure, there is some up front training, but the emphasis is on starting the lean journey with kaizen events. Operational and financial improvements are rapid, dramatic, and lasting.

But I’m struggling to reconcile his success with everything I’ve seen and studied, which runs counter to Byrne’s experience.

First, build organizational muscles
As I wrote in my book Building the Fit Organization, you don’t go into gym trying to dead lift 300 pounds on the first day, or try to run a 20 miles in your first marathon workout. You build your way up to those levels. In the same way, I believe that you have to develop the organizational muscles required for continuous improvement through small steps. Trying to improve productivity in a process by 25% on first try is (generally) a recipe for failure and frustration—notwithstanding Byrne’s success with that approach.

Mark Rosenthal, a lean thinker whom I admire, recently wrote:

During the [kaizen] event itself, the short time period and high expectations puts pressure on people to just implement stuff. People are likely to defer to the suggestions and lead of the workshop leader and install the standard “lean tools” without full understanding of how they work or what effect they will have on the process and people dynamics. . . .[as a result], when new issues come up, they are going to revert to what they know.

The data on change management are consistent: about 70% of change initiatives fail, despite the plethora of books, conferences, and scholarly papers dedicated to the subject. The roots of those failures are varied and deep, but I believe that one of the issues is the attempt to do too much too soon—the organizational equivalent of going out for a 20 mile run on the first day of training. Particularly in today’s more global business environment, with diverse teams working in different countries (to say nothing of different cultures), making and sustaining change is an order of magnitude more challenging than it was when even large enterprises were primarily located in one country.

Rosenthal advocates for small changes—in his case, the kind of changes that are made through the use of the Toyota kata approach:

When small changes are made and tested as part of experiments vs. just being implemented, then there is less chance of erosion later. Rather than overwhelming people with all of the problems at once from a bunch of changes, one-by-one lets them learn what problems must be dealt with. They have an opportunity to always take the next step from a working process rather than struggling to get something that is totally unfamiliar to work at all.

Avoiding fight or flight
Another powerful factor working against successful change is the short-circuiting of higher-level cognitive thinking that happens when people face major change. Dr. Robert Maurer, a professor of behavioral science at UCLA, explains that no matter how well intentioned the change, it triggers the fight or flight response seated in the amygdala, the “pre-historic” part of the brain. He’s found that it’s easier to get patients to change unhealthy parts of their lifestyle through small, incremental modifications than through wholesale changes.

For example, he had one patient begin an exercise program by simply marching in place for one minute in front of the television. . . then two minutes, then three, etc. Having her sign up for a six-month CrossFit class would have triggered the fight or flight response, but one minute of marching in front of the TV? It’s a small enough change that the amygdala didn’t take over from the frontal lobe.

The same dynamic occurs in the workplace: small changes circumvent the amygdala, making it easier for people to adopt and accept a new way of working. Paul Akers has done amazing work leading lean at FastCap in just this fashion. Rather than focusing on kaizen events, he asks each employee to figure out how to do their job just two seconds faster. Everyday.

The benefit of incremental change also ties into the findings of Professor Teresa Amabile. In her book, The Progress Principle, she suggests that the simple act of making progress in one’s work—no matter how small—causes people to enjoy their work more and be more intrinsically motivated. Amabile says that

the most important implication of the progress principle is this: By supporting people and their daily progress in meaningful work, managers improve not only the inner work lives of their employees but also the organization’s long-term performance, which enhances inner work life even more.

The week-long kaizen events used to kickoff the lean journey that Byrne champions certainly provide that sense of progress. But by definition they’re episodic (every 2 weeks? every month?) rather than continuous. By contrast, small incremental improvements, whether through formal kata coaching or some other method, create a feeling of progress everyday. And as I interpret Amabile’s research, that’s valuable for sustaining both the work changes people make as well as their motivation for continuous improvement.

I’m not in any position to contradict Byrne’s success, but I’m struggling to reconcile what I know with what he’s done. I’m open to all opinions on this.