How Lean Induces Debilitating Cognitive Dissonance

cognitive dissonance

A common scenario goes like this: Salaried professionals somehow become aware of Lean management. They learn more about it and soon begin to see it as a much better way to lead and manage an organization. Seeing this great opportunity, they become strong advocates for Lean within their organization. They look for opportunities to influence upper management and gain their acceptance for Lean management. They get rebuffed but keep on trying. They continue to get rebuffed by company leaders and may even suffer for their advocacy — moved to a different work group, sidelined, demoted, or fired. The salaried professionals cannot understand why company leaders do not appreciate Lean management as they do. This experience creates cognitive dissonance:

Lean management is great, but top leaders do not agree.

The first cognition is that Lean is “Lean is great.” The second cognition is “top leaders do not agree.” These two contradictory cognitions put in motion the need for justifications to explain why top leaders do not agree that Lean management is great. A common justification for the choice that leaders make against Lean is:

It must be me. I must be doing something wrong.

This justification is demoralizing and self-defeating. Nevertheless, Lean people will accept great personal discomfort to relieve their cognitive dissonance. Accepting responsibility, typical of the Lean way of thinking, plays into the hands of leaders. They want you to feel like you are wrong and that it is your fault so that you will give up the folly of Lean transformation. But you find that very hard to do. Why? In addition to Lean offering practical visions of a much better life at work and numerous other benefits for all stakeholders, Lean requires a significant investment in time and effort to gain new knowledge, experience, skills, and learning. The larger the investment in time and effort that one makes in Lean, the harder it is to see the truth of the situation — that there is virtually no pull from CEOs for Lean. There never has been.

Yet, one’s allegiance to Lean management remains strong. So strong, in fact, they let others do the thinking for them, which, in turn, causes them to distort or ignore anything that undermines their loyalty to Lean management. Whatever evidence is provided that reveals the truth is waved away; consciously or unconsciously filtered out from the Lean milieu to avoid having to question Lean, themselves, their teachers, or their Lean idols. Confirmation bias helpfully allows one to preserve the belief that they are smart and that their decision to learn Lean and advocate for it was correct.

The result is that Lean people lose the ability to make informed decisions. If the evidence, the facts, show that one overestimated the appeal of Lean, its impact, or was otherwise wrong in some way about Lean, then reflection is disabled, problems go unrecognized, and new solutions to problems are not sought. Consequently, acknowledging cognitive dissonance is a better strategy for ensuring the future relevancy of Lean management than to justify (and continue justifying) the dissonance. The cognitive dissonance:

Lean management is great, but top leaders do not agree.

is justified in another way, one that is again personal but also social in nature, and thus helps maintain one’s commitment to Lean management:

“I know Lean won’t really go anywhere in my company, but I continue to learn from my work to improve processes.”

So, in addition to the benefit of vast learning and skills development that Lean has to offer, there is a social component and group camaraderie with clearly established norms of thinking and behavior. This too prevents acknowledging the existence of cognitive dissonance, and it begs the question: How does ignoring problems solve problems? This is the very thing that Lean people most strongly criticize classical management leaders for doing but have found a way — a justification — for doing the very same thing when to comes to Lean management.

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