Peter Anthony quotTo teach lean thinking strive to make lean ambassadors out of the organizationrsquos influence driversquot

How to Transition Team Members Who Are Resistant to Lean Management

June 15, 2017
How can a lean manager overcome fear and resistance to change, in time to turn around a failing company? Four key steps for effecting organizational change.

When lean management is implemented to salvage a flailing organization, the existing team faces numerous challenges.

A slight exaggeration here, but one day a team member is going about her work. It’s business as usual. Seemingly overnight, she must cope with new managers, new policies, new processes and procedures, and perhaps the most challenging of all — emotional anguish.

When a company reassesses its production models using lean management, it is implicitly rejecting the very policies and procedures that provided existing team members a sense of stability, direction, and familiarity.

This rejection of the known generates fear and even resentment among team members.

What is a Lean Manager to Do?

That said, new lean managers inheriting a non-lean team are doubly handicapped: First, the company in question likely has very limited resources. Secondly, unhappy team members have the capability to derail product flow, even if unintentionally.

How can a lean manager overcome fear and resistance to change, in time to turn around a failing company?

Four Ways to Transition Recalcitrant Team Members to Lean Management

1.      Don’t Gloss Over the Fact that Challenging Times Lie Ahead

Change is difficult and uncertainty is a challenge for most people. This is true even if the changes lead to a healthier and safer company.

Just as a simple change in software can create ripples of dissatisfaction, it is natural for people to cling to what they know best. Uncertainty brings with it the fear that some individuals will inherit new and likely unfamiliar responsibilities—ones that may be disagreeable to them.

Instead of minimizing potentially negative consequences of the looming change, state flat out that some individuals will face more adversity than others. Much of this has to start from the top. The unknown intimidates, frustrates, and creates emotional insecurity. If leadership communicates and exhibits its vision, then change  becomes the catalyst for improvement.  

When UGN implemented lean processes, our  entire leadership team went through extensive training. Hands on, in the plants, and in our model carpet cell.

This created an environment of emotional safety and excitement. Better people, better thinking, better processes!

If the effects of change are discounted, those experiencing the greatest changes may increasingly develop resistance to them.

2.      Evaluate Current Staffing

Lean management is not synonymous with layoffs. However, some team members are not open to working in a lean culture. They may not agree with lean philosophies, nor do they want to better understand these principles.

If you retain these individuals as company culture evolves around them, you are not benefiting them by allowing them to continue working for a lean company.

Consider respectfully transitioning recalcitrant team members out of their positions.

Keep in mind that these team members are not unsuited for employment; they are simply not suited for their present employment.

Before you announce your plans to implement lean management, begin planning healthy transitions for managers unwilling to work in a lean culture.

3.      Pre-plan Team Communications

Use rich communication mediums to announce change. Face-to-face communication cannot be overvalued as a means to convey positivity, commitment, and optimism.

An “all hands” meeting is an appropriate venue for the initial announcement.

Do not make a habit of distracting teams from their primary responsibilities with frequent updates.

Following your initial announcement, meet as needed.

Informal settings for interaction help humanize a new lean manager and dispel negative rumors. Even if you are leading a company with little to no cash on hand, plan informal gatherings outside the office environment.

4.      Highlight Empowerment Versus the Increase in Responsibilities

Team members accustomed to traditional workplace cultures will not readily evaluate their own actions and suggest process improvements. This type of self-evaluation may be completely foreign to them.  

Initially, many team members will find the concept of increased responsibility daunting rather than empowering.

To teach lean thinking, strive to make lean ambassadors out of the organization’s influence drivers. You needn’t convert all individuals immediately—look to the ones who are fully invested and willing to learn lean.

Focus on those who can deliver change and who will become not only the informal leader on the floor, but also the industrial athlete of the cell.

Once you provide training, these ambassadors will naturally influence and encourage others.

When individuals reach out to you and point out unnecessary movement or wasteful inventory, praise them publicly.

Other team members will see that you are rewarding productive criticism.

Something Bigger than One’s Self

Over time, team members will come to recognize themselves as part of a greater whole. Even in an industry such as automotive manufacturing, which attracts solitary workers, team members will communicate productively as they center thinking on lean principles.

You will know you have succeeded when you notice team members at all levels behaving like effective leaders, taking pride in the entire production process and working to improve it.

I’m proud to say that many members of the organization have worked their way up from the plant floor to various management positions throughout the company. This is our ultimate goal and the definition of our success.

Peter Anthony is president and chief executive officer of UGN, which he joined in 1992 as sales and marketing manager. Upon taking the helm of chief executive in 2002, Anthony ultimately reinvented UGN—expanding it from a niche supplier to a broad-based corporation with a diversified product line. His drive to embrace the Toyota Production System as the foundation of the UGN business model resulted in maximum productivity and efficiency throughout his manufacturing and business management structure. Today, Anthony spearheads the company’s more than $400 million in revenue across four manufacturing facilities in the United States and one in Mexico. 

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