Securing the Elusive Lean Buy-In

Take advantage of this four-step process to achieve buy-in for your lean efforts.

You have passion about making lean work in your organization. You have ideas, and you are ready to realize them. You have experience and are willing to share it. You have a plan and are ready to execute. You're just missing one element: buy-in.

Despite widespread support for lean, I am frequently engaged to overcome a lack of buy-in at organizations. In the lean journey for DTE Energy, for example, buy-in was a major challenge. It was the first utility to begin lean, and it was a highly regulated industry, not known for fast-moving change.

This is not a recipe, but here are key strategies to improve your chances of securing that elusive buy-in.

1. Treat them like a customer, not an opponent. I see too many people approaching executives from whom they are trying to get buy-in as the opponent. Unless you are an Oscar-winning actor, it's nearly impossible to prevent that attitude from showing. You must approach the person as your customer, or even your partner.

When several of us joined DTE Energy, acting as change agents spread throughout functional roles, we set out to transform the company. But we were not kind to, or engaged with, those who were in our way. Our methods earned us the nickname "The Chrysler Mafia" since that was where many of us had come from. When we flipped this around and started working with insiders as partners, the journey flipped around and started to pick up speed.

2. Have a multistep strategy. Wouldn't it be easier if we could sit down with someone, explain it and be done? Most people recognize that this is unlikely, yet it is often the strategy people adopt. They go for the one-time win. When it doesn't work, they go for it again, until it is a long series of one-step plans.

People didn't adopt their current beliefs in one conversation, and they aren't likely to change them that way either. Your strategy should be multistep and create a set of experiences that walks them from their current belief to the desired one.

In starting DTE Energy's lean journey, the executive team received a monthly learning process. This included case studies, teaching, benchmarking and application. The team went from disinterested to committed. No one moment was the pivotal point. It was the cumulative effect of all of them. People rarely turn on a dime, so don't treat them as if they will.

3. Overcome the valid "no." Most people don't say "no" just to be difficult. The "no" answer comes, whether explained or not, from valid reasons. Maybe it's risk; then it's our job to mitigate that risk. Maybe it's time; then it's our job to find the time. Maybe it's not understanding the upside; then it's our job to demonstrate the upside. Maybe it's language; then use language that fits their language.

At DTE Energy, we didn't talk about lean. The objection to that was, "We don't build cars." Whether valid or not, that was their understanding of lean. We instead built the DTE Energy Operating System. It combined language and ideas they already were used to, with the new ideas that lean would bring the organization. In the end, it wasn't our idea, it was theirs. And that buy-in has lasted 13 years now.

4. Call in reinforcements. This begins with how we frame the question. Instead of figuring out "how can I change his mind?" it should be "how to change his mind?" If it must be you, then it is ego-driven.

Would the person be more effectively influenced by someone else? Engage that person's help. As President Truman said, "You can accomplish anything in life provided you don't mind who gets the credit."

For gaining buy-in, when that is the barrier to success, don't rely on hope. Make it your problem. Own it. And do the hard work. After all, an idea unrealized is worth very little at all.

Contributing Editor Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and the co-author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road."

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