How Leaders Sabotage Lean

Let’s take the word “leader” to mean anyone in an organization who has management responsibility, beginning with supervisors and extending to CEOs. Most leaders have good intentions when it comes to doing their job, satisfying customers, and helping the organization prosper. Yet, even leaders with good intentions have a handicap: They possess inherited knowledge from the past which they apply to the present, even though it is no longer relevant. Whether it is intended or not, this sabotages the practice of Lean management, whose intent it is to produce better results for business and society than can be achieved with Classical management.

SabotSabotage comes from the French word sabot (wooden shoe) and means to engage in foot-dragging; to slow down, confuse, disrupt, thwart, impair, obstruct, or vandalize. What is the purpose of sabotage when it comes to Lean? It is to maintain the status quo; to protect an old, obviously inferior, management practice, and to protect the inherited knowledge and the vested interests. The result of sabotage is to maintain current equilibrium conditions, thus preventing change to a new and obviously superior management practice, one that is needed for rapid adaptation in a more quickly changing business environment. Sabotage can be overt, such as when leaders erect clear obstacles. More often, sabotage is covert; small actions that impede progress, or subtle actions that signal process improvement work has little or no value.

Here is a small sample of the ways leaders sabotage Lean:

  • Limits or withholds Lean training
  • Makes Lean complex
  • Requires review and approval before process improvement can begin
  • Requires a business case (ROI) or similar justifications to work on a process improvement
  • Continues holding people accountable to Classical management metrics
  • Rewards Classical management thinking and practices
  • Creates new metrics that do not aid people in their improvement efforts
  • Delegates continuous improvement to lower-level people
  • Unwilling to learn; closed-minded, incurious
  • Avoids Lean training
  • Micro- or nano-manage Lean activities
  • Does not apply what was learned in Lean training (in classroom or genba)
  • Not rewarding people for successful application of Lean principles, methods, and tools
  • Cherry-picks Lean tools
  • Limits Lean management to the use of selected Lean tools
  • Mandates use of Lean tools
  • Requires certifications or levels of achievement (gold-silver-bronze) to establish Lean competency
  • Avoids coaching or teaching problem-solving methods to workers
  • Avoids hands-on improvement activities
  • Does not change criteria for advancement (promotion)
  • Promotes favorites over skilled Lean people
  • Performance appraisal process ignores or discounts Lean efforts
  • Not interested in cause-and-effect
  • Not leveling customer demand
  • Views problems as bad
  • Kaizen is atomized into small, discrete “events” (e.g. 5S kaizen)
  • Material and information flow is not the desired goal
  • Not letting employees try new ideas
  • Makes false statements, such as saying Lean is only for operations
  • Demands “flawless execution” or says “failure is not an option”
  • Blaming or punishing people for mistakes
  • Holds people accountable for results, but not for process
  • Ignores the advice of others more knowledgeable
  • Devalues workers and their work
  • Accepts recurring problems
  • Unwilling to share resources
  • Does not trust or respect workers
  • Does not believe in or promote teamwork
  • Speeding up workers
  • Blames middle managers for lack of progress
  • Consultants (not employees) improve processes
  • Ignores feedback
  • Ignores facts
  • Absence of profit-sharing
  • Continuation of discretionary (vs. true economically necessary) layoffs
  • Laying off continuous improvement leaders
  • Disinterest

Can you think of other examples?

AdobeStock 199719875Sabotage is intended to result in failure. Failure should signal the need for thinking. Yet, if management’s mantra is “failure is not an option” (in fact or in political appearance) or “flawless execution,” then failure does not actually occur (i.e. everything is a success; it is only a matter of defining it as such), and so thinking does not occur. The result is that managers rely on instincts and shared beliefs and habits of thought that were learned from the groups of managers they have been a part of over time. This thwarts the uptake of Lean among managers and workers alike, and thus perpetuates Classical management. Said another way, Lean contaminates managers’ instincts and their shared beliefs and habits of thought. Lean, therefore, is unwelcome, and efforts to sabotage Lean are thus both justified and vindicated.

This does not make the saboteurs bad people, nor are they to be disrespected. They are merely carrying forward traditions that they judge to be both useful and effective at advancing the pecuniary ends of business. It can be said, however, that they lack a skeptical frame of mind, one of inquiry directed towards advancing the practice of management.

So, from a management perspective, something is judged to be an improvement if and only if it reinforces the status quo (disrespect for labor is one example of status quo, which explains why “continuous improvement” usually takes place in the absence of “respect for people”). This is not the Lean person’s understanding of improvement, which is to dismantle the status quo and bring the company and its processes forward — to quickly bury the “dead hand of the past” and endlessly produce “change for the better.”

Note: This post is an expansion of Chapter 16, “How Lean Activities are Sabotaged,” from my 2007 book, Real Lean: Understanding the Lean Management System (Volume 1).

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