It’s such an infamous and oft-used line, it barely even registers with us anymore when it is said: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we (insert excuse here).” Just last week I heard this line used three separate times from three different companies, which caused me to stop and wonder; “Were the circumstances really beyond your control, or did you just believe them to be?”

In my career (which was mostly as a manufacturing engineering manager), I will admit that I fell victim to this mentality more than once. Although I’d been trained and believed in things like ISO, TS and lean, I also knew what my team and I were up against every day. From the time we walked into the shop in the morning to the time we walked out, it was a complete deluge of requests for assistance. Go here, send a guy there, go see this operator, fix this machine…We barely had time to think about continuous improvement let alone practice it. Despite being largely unsatisfying, often that is life in operations. You balance what you can do with what you want to do. In our case we did the best we could, even though we all knew we could do better.

I refer to this as the Hamster Wheel Phenomenon. You can work a lot harder and move a lot faster, but you’re still ultimately getting nowhere. Lean teaches us that those closest to the work are the best ones to effect positive change to it, yet we often do not allow them the power to do so. All we do allow them is to spin the hamster wheel faster, which offers no reward to them or to the organization. And so, people are taught that most things within the business are simply beyond their control. In other words, “Can’t win, don’t try.” That’s hardly the recipe for long-term organizational health.

The truth is that there is nothing that is beyond our control, given the proper corporate culture and mentality. It’s a matter of how organizations operate and how they challenge their employees to think. For instance, in 2011 here in Connecticut we had a freak late-October snowstorm. The leaves hadn’t fallen from the trees yet, and the snow that fell was wet and heavy. Tens of thousands of trees came down across the state as they collapsed under the weight of the snow, and many took power lines with them. At one point, 830,000 residents had no power, and more than 150,000 wouldn’t get it back on for over a week. Most gas stations had no power, and those that did had long lines. Many even rationed gas to customers. I personally witnessed one fist fight break out over gas availability, as both guys needed some for their generators to heat their homes. It was a mess.

You could make the case that such an event was certainly one of those “circumstances beyond our control,” but was it really? While the snowstorm certainly was, I maintain that its result (830,000 without power) was not. Instead, it was a matter of the utility company’s planning outlook. Had they used FMEA thinking, perhaps they’d have recognized the potential severity of such an event and taken action to prevent it from occurring. In the weeks following the storm, the focus shifted from the immediate need of restoring power to why the outages had occurred in the first place. It eventually came out that the utility, in an effort to save cost, had drastically reduced their tree-trimming activities over the several years leading up to the snowstorm, which had allowed power lines to become exposed to trees that were too close to them. Once that news hit, it wasn’t long before the CEO of our utility company resigned.

Were there people within the utility who knew reducing tree-trimming could cause a major problem? I’m sure that there were, so the question then becomes, “Why weren’t they listened to?” Was the management staff too busy? Were they too focused on the short-term profitability of the company? Or did they simply think that such an event was simply out of their control?

My challenge to you today is to get off the hamster wheel. Effect real change, and allow your direct reports to do the same. I think you’ll pleasantly find that there’s more within your control than you think.

Paul W. Critchley is President of New England Lean Consulting. He is co-author of “The Whole Professional, A Collection of Essays to Help You Achieve a Full and Satisfying Life”. He can be reached at http://www.newenglandlean.com.