What to do when supervisors, middle managers resist lean

Larry Rubrich

All successful and sustainable implementations of lean start with an organization’s top management. Trying to implement lean from the middle-out or the bottom-up may result in some improvements, but it will not result in your organization becoming a world-class company that is globally competitive.

In the book Leading Change by John Kotter, the author notes the change implementation prerequisites (for a lean implementation) that management must accomplish as:    

  • Creating a sense of change urgency
  • Developing a guiding coalition/alliance to steer the organization through the change
  • Developing a vision/picture of the company’s future state and a strategy to achieve it
  • Communicating the vision and strategy to the entire workforce
  • Empowering all associates/employees

Organizations inadvertently create brick walls to change, disguised as supervisors and middle managers, if any of the following topics are not covered or communicated clearly during these prerequisite activities: 

  1. Associate/employee empowerment. How will the supervisor’s and manager’s jobs be affected? Will they have jobs?
  2. One of the four components of a lean implementation is the development of a lean culture to support the lean implementation. Have we planned for this?
  3. Have we linked our people measures (performance evaluations, promotion criteria, merit increases and bonuses) to the lean culture and the lean implementation vision so we do not send mixed messages with regard to what is important.

It is important to remember that resistance to change is often the result of a lack of clearly communicated vision and strategy.

Let’s look at each of the three brick wall building activities:

Creating Brick Wall No. 1 – Fear of Associate/Employee Empowerment 

The first 80 percent of the journey to become a world-class organization is through all of the associates in the organization. This means creating an environment where empowerment can develop (this is an evolutionary process, not revolutionary). An empowered environment generally contains these elements: 

  • Associates are recognized as the most valuable resource
  • Team work is utilized throughout the organization
  • Decision making is delegated to the lowest level possible
  • Openness, initiative and risk taking are promoted
  • Accountability, credit, responsibility and ownership are shared (ownership here means psychological ownership)

What this means to supervisors and managers is that many of their responsibilities prior to lean – including making job/shift assignments, tracking factory or office output, setting schedules/performance requirements, performing associate evaluations, meeting with customers, training associates and hiring/terminating associates – over a period of time are all (except terminations) given to the teams. To prevent the creation of a brick wall, supervisors/managers need to know:

  • How will their jobs be affected? Will they have a job after empowerment?
  • What will their new responsibilities look like?

What does their new career path look like? (Is training required?)

Creating Brick Wall No. 2 – Failure to Develop a Lean Culture
A successful and sustainable lean implementation has four components: Lean Planning, Lean Concepts, Lean Tools and Lean Culture.

Lean Culture is the component that builds a lean foundation of thoughts, expectations and behaviors that makes the lean implementation happen. This is the component that musters the organization’s most important resource, its people, to create a “war on waste.”

The only major competitive weapon an organization has is its people. Most organizations do not have a lot of patents or technology that can protect them from their competitors or create barriers to entry into their markets. Generally speaking, it is an organization’s people that make the difference.

Since most organizations have spent little time creating a “positive, people-based” culture, the Lean Culture component (the foundation of lean) must be developed.

The start of this culture development (or culture modification if a culture already exists) begins with “behavioral expectations.” Behavioral expectations or codes of conduct are short statements, usually in the form of a laminated pocket card, that are “a set of rules or standards” that members of the organization use to guide their behavior and actions.

It should be noted that the behavioral expectations will only produce culture change if they are modeled by top management. Since the culture change process can take years, top management must be committed to the guidelines as a new way of doing business. An excellent example of behavioral guidelines (code of conduct) is shown below:

Creating Brick Wall No. 3 – Failure to Link/Align Lean Culture and Behavioral Expectations to People Measures
Again, to prevent the creation of resistance at the supervisory and middle-manager levels as a result of less-than-clear communication, our vision, behavioral expectations and culture, and our people measures must all be on the same page. Linking and alignment areas include:

  • Performance evaluations
  • Promotions
  • Reward systems
  • Bonus systems
  • Recruiting
  • New associate orientation

In general, clear and complete communication of the vision and strategy involved in the lean implementation will prevent brick wall building.

About the author:
Larry Rubrich is the president of WCM Associates LLC. For more information, visit www.wcmfg.comor call 260-637-8064.

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About the Author

Larry Rubrich is the president of WCM Associates LLC. For more information, visit www.wcmfg.com or call 260-637-8064.