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Tackling Resistance When You're the New Lean Leader

Dec. 1, 2023
Struggling to get buy-in so you can start building continuous-improvement culture? Here's a roadmap.

Even though lean tools and principles have been around for over 40 years, thousands of manufacturing organizations have not yet embraced them.

For purposes of this article, I’m going to call these organizations “traditional manufacturers.” They tend to fit these criteria:

  •      Decisions are made from intuition, rather than facts and data.
  • There are no set standards for many processes.
  • Shop-floor organization is non-existent.
  • Leaders do not practice continuous improvement or problem-solving, tactical or strategic.
  • Operational and/or financial results are mediocre or below their potential.

Picture yourself newly joining such an organization as the senior leader or head of operations. You are likely to observe an environment with no buy-in for lean, particularly when leaders have been exposed to or had a negative experience with implementing lean tools in the past.

Leaders will operate in a reactive manner, often working on unexpected abnormalities that consume most of their time.

When you begin pointing out your observations, you will be met with dismissive attitudes. You will see little urgency to improve and little concern for results. Very often, you’ll hear, “We don’t build cars or widgets,” “We are different,” “That won’t work here,” or “This is the way we and everyone in the industry have always done it.”

A Better Approach

If you find yourself in this situation, let’s look at an approach that has proven successful in our practice. For brevity’s sake, we’ll look at a plant with these conditions, but the advice can apply more broadly:

  •       The organization operates several manufacturing plants.
  • The industry is very mature.
  • Business culture is deeply rooted in tradition.
  • The organization does not see lean principles as applicable or relevant.

Here are the steps I recommend to help the organization embrace lean thinking:

1. Create urgency by developing self-awareness

As the new kid on the block, the only way you’ll build credibility is to objectively point out the shortcomings of the current condition. This is done by developing metrics that reveal the severity of performance gaps. These metrics will need to be quantifiable and factual; make sure they’re compiled with complete transparency to avoid putting their legitimacy into question. Share these metrics with other leaders in the organization; have constructive discussions about the reasons for the gaps and sincerely get their feedback and insight.

2. Identify allies on your management team

As you have these discussions, begin to identify those who share your passion and concern. Keep them engaged and maintain the dialogue around the need for change. Gradually start to share your vision and gauge their reactions. Ask thought-provoking questions, for instance, “Have you noticed this quality problem? What happens if we let this go on much longer?” This may take several iterations before people start to see things in a different light.

     3. Identify potential pilot locations

As you go through the onboarding process, pay close attention to the local culture at each one of these plants. You will notice subtle differences that will tell you if they are a good candidate to be the pilot for a transformation effort. Some things to look for are:

  • Openness to change.
  • Desire to improve performance.
  • Receptiveness to constructive feedback.
  • Strong leadership.
  • High levels of initiative 

4. Recruit a receptive leader to lead the pilot 

As you interact with  local plant leaders during onboarding and visits, seek to spend one-on-one time with them. Ask them questions about their plant, find out what they’re passionate about--as well as  strengths, weaknesses, understanding of lean principles, and leadership philosophy. Pay close attention to their  interactions with their team and identify certain traits:

  • Ambition.
  • Go-getter attitude.
  • Eager to learn and improve.
  • Humility.
  • High levels of trust, credibility and respect earned with his/her employees

Once you’ve found a handful of candidates, explore your ideas with them and gauge their receptiveness. Find out how they feel about the current performance and what could be done to improve. Once you find someone with the right qualities who is willing to try--and is on board with your vision--it is time to put your plan into action.

Once you’ve found a handful of candidates, explore your ideas with them and gauge their receptiveness. Find out how they feel about the current performance and what could be done to improve. Once you find someone with the right qualities who is willing to try—and who is on board with your vision—it is time to put your plan into action.

5. Develop a roadmap

Evaluate the pilot facility. Look at:

  • Operational performance: Identify the needed improvements to increase performance.
  • Leadership and management skills: What are the development needs in operations management and what additional leadership skills are needed?
  • Strategy deployment process: Identify the gaps in the current strategic planning process and changes needed to improve it.
  • Company culture: Develop a deeper understanding of the current culture by studying certain cultural indicators and traits (i.e., voluntary turnover rates, exit interviews, shared beliefs revealed by their behaviors and rituals, etc.)  and a roadmap to reduce turnover and improve employee engagement and retention.

Share your vision with the entire team at your pilot facility; it should challenge them rise to their potential and be expressed in measurable goals (i.e., quality, delivery, costs, equipment reliability, etc.). Reassure them that this effort’s objective is to make their work easier and more rewarding and to retain and grow customers (job security). This way, employees will understand what’s in it for them.

6. Support and oversee the implementation closely

Once the roadmap is developed, you’ll want to give your team space to begin implementation. However, stay connected with the initiative by:

  • Requesting frequent progress reports.
  • Providing guidance to ensure the implementation is sustainable. Some observable characteristics of a sustainable implementation include newly implemented standards in use and well-documented, leaders acquiring and applying the right operations management and leadership skills, high engagement from employees (and poor-fit or resisting employees being given the opportunity to adjust with the understanding this new direction is not optional).
  • Removing obstacles and providing encouragement.
  • Completing periodic visits to get first-hand observations of the progress.
  • Holding the team accountable by staying engaged with the initiative and asking for countermeasures when targets or deadlines are missed.

7. Implement your talent development and changes

While the implementation is ongoing, begin working on evaluating the talent and developing and implementing action plans for each.

8. Bring visibility to results

Use every opportunity to shine a light on the work the team is putting in and the results they are achieving:

  • During leadership team meetings.
  • Posting on the company intranet.
  • Featuring the team in the company newsletter.
  • Highlighting their accomplishments during recognition events.

9. Document as a case study 

Be sure to ask your team to document progress thoroughly; this includes taking plenty of before and after pictures and videos of the pilot factory. Capture the baseline performance for the plant and, after that, for every area improved. Also, include interviews with employees about how things worked before and how they work now, and have them share their perspectives. Document on video these interviews and footage of the plant and share those videos with other locations and with your peers.

10. Create visibility for the success of the pilot

In leadership meetings, be intentional about highlighting the increased performance of the plant. Avoid overdoing it so it does not come across as disingenuous. However, make sure the improved performance is progressively acknowledged. Once the results are visible, others will have a harder time questioning the effectiveness of the improvements.

11. Invite other locations to benchmark

This is where you start to turn the tide on the buy-in from other locations. Create a benchmarking event and invite your peers, other plant managers, and the executive team. In this event, you will publicly:

  • Share the journey of the pilot location.
  • Recognize the team for their efforts.
  • Give the team the opportunity to share their experience.
  • Allow others to ask questions.
  • Invite participants to identify one improvement they could take back to their plants.

12. Share your vision with the executive leadership team 

This is where you make your case for company-wide adoption. Express the need for their support. Acknowledge their skepticism and encourage them to embrace a new way of thinking and operating. Share the results at the pilot location and the potential for similar results at the other plants.

13. Elevate thinking to the strategic level

Give executive leadership direction and help them see that you have only scratched the surface. Work with them on setting annual goals for improvements that will boost financial results, and determining business priorities three to five years out.

I’ve laid this all out very sequentially. However, you should anticipate and prepare for resistance and roadblocks along the way. Remember, the organization will initially not see the benefits of your vision. Be persistent, stay the course, listen and observe, use facts and figures as much as possible and always go the extra mile to help people understand the goals ahead and the impact of remaining in the status quo.

Operations veteran Dan Burgos is founder and president of Alphanova Consulting, a Dallas/Fort Worth-based business transformation and lean consultancy.

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