Another brick in the wall: It's difficult to install lean behaviors

Larry Rubrich

Identifying the brick walls can be difficult because often their actions are not generally overt. In the lean planning meetings, they all shake their heads and say, “Yes, yes, we need to implement lean in our company.” When they return to their area of responsibility, they tell their people, “No, nothing has changed; just keep doing it the way we have always done it.”

As a plant manager/general manager, I found it extremely difficult to “read” these brick walls in advance of their actually stopping change. Some people have the intuitive skill of being able to read this developing brick wall in face-to-face conversation. Obviously, the earlier you can discover the brick wall, the better. 

The 90-Day Rule
Once you have identified the lean implementation “brick wall” disguised as the supervisor or middle manager, what is the next step? Apply the 90-Day Rule. This is when you sit down with this individual and review the company’s reason(s) and urgency for the lean implementation or “trip.” Using the context of a trip, the discussion can go something like this: The company is going on a train ride to become world class. As a valuable member of our organization, you need to be on this train. To obtain a ticket to board this train for our world-class journey, in the next 90 days there are specific new behaviors you must acquire, and specific old behaviors that must be left behind. A discussion, definition and measures of the new and old behaviors then occur. Follow-up meetings to discuss the progress in eliminating the old behaviors and adopting the new ones are essential and scheduled (not less than every two weeks). At 90 days, both parties should know what the decision is on the boarding pass.

If someone had asked us 25 years ago if everyone could change, we would have very optimistically said, yes. Ultimately, our experience, supported by the literature, says no. What we need is to have open and honest dialogue with the identified brick walls and present choices, options and consequences.

Some people might be critical of the short length of time we recommend to adopt the new behaviors. Our experience has been that if people will not move seriously to adopting the new behaviors in 90 days, giving them six months or two years will not make any difference. The worst part is that, while they are not changing during this six-month to two-year period, these supervisors/middle managers can seriously disrupt your lean implementation. Depending on their position and the size of the company, they might even cause it to become a program of the month.    
Dealing with “brick walls” is difficult because some of these management associates were trained and promoted in the old “command and control” management style by the company. They could have even excelled at this style of management because, for them, being “in charge” and telling people what to do was an ego or power trip.

Now we want them to support two-way communication, empowerment, visual communication and scheduling, and self-directed teams. We want them to learn how to coach and mentor. Making this conversion, from a 1980s style that gave them raises and promotions, can be very difficult. To paraphrase John Kotter, author of the book “Leading Change”, it’s like telling someone to quit drinking, smoking and go on a diet all at once.

There will be roadblocks, barriers and brick walls encountered on the world-class journey, and all of them will be people – management people. Remember to communicate, communicate, communicate to this group the reason for implementing lean, how the business will change and how their roles will change. Review the no-layoff policy. It applies to them, also.

Prepare, with the help of your human resources manager, your version of the 90-Day Rule in advance of the brick walls showing themselves (we can promise you there will be some). Act in a fair, honest and timely fashion to avoid the high costs of stalling the implementation.  

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

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About the Author

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