Lean Leaders Impede the Advancement of Lean

In a recent post, “Ask Art: Where Will the Biggest Resistance to Lean Come From?,” Art Byrne accurately explains the people and parts of the organization that will resist Lean transformation based on his extensive experience. Art also offers some suggestions on how to overcome the resistance, the main focus being to get people to participate in kaizen — from senior managers to workers on the shop and office floor. While Art’s advice is tried and true, it, along with other tactics, have, after some 40 years, produced “no more than 10 percent of [successful] Lean turnarounds.” It is clear that Art’s advice to keep doing more of the same will not yield results that are any better in the future than they have been in the past. How can Lean people be satisfied with that?

turnaround kata

What is missing from Art’s analysis are the sources and causes of resistance to Lean, especially when it comes to CEOs and presidents. To do better than “no more than 10 percent of [successful] Lean turnarounds,” people, including Lean leaders such as Art, must turn to newer sources of information to better understand the resistance problem. The thinking on this vitally important problem has been significantly advanced. Please see my book, The Triumph of Classical Management Over Lean Management: How Tradition Prevails and What to Do About It for an in-depth analysis of the sources and causes of executive resistance to Lean. The future of Lean depends on resolution of this problem, and therefore all Lean practitioners should have a strong interest in learning more – especially our influential veteran Lean leaders.

A fundamental practice in Lean is to do better by comprehending what does not work (P), try something new (D), learn (S), and make changes (A). That being our standard practice, Lean people should be receptive to new information, especially on a topic that is of fundamental importance to the spread if Lean management., and likely to even Lean’s survival. But, that is less true than one might imagine. People who have dedicated their lives to promoting Lean fail to seek out, or ignore, relevant new information that would both alter their understanding of the problem and change their approach to problem-solving. Minimizing or ignoring problems with Lean itself — e.g. “no more than 10 percent of [successful] Lean turnarounds” — has become “standard work” among Lean promoters and veteran Lean leaders.

There exists a heavy reliance on and acceptance of old thinking that snuffs out new thinking. Cognitive biases prevent those in the Lean community, including its foremost leaders, from advancing Lean. Specifically, the cognitive biases include: anchoring, bandwagon effect, conservatism bias, ostrich effect, overconfidence, and stereotyping. Each form of cognitive bias applies to fundamental factors that are embedded in Lean such as economics, sociology, politics, history, philosophy, law, and business. Cognitive biases operate on these seven factors individually and in combination, and result in a close-mindedness to the new information that is needed to do better than “no more than 10 percent of [successful] Lean turnarounds.”

In kaizen or coaching, the best senseis continuously challenge their students’ cognitive biases and preconceptions. We were scolded, sometimes quite strongly, when we clung to our cognitive biases and preconceptions. Overcoming these errors in thinking are an important part of the process for learning about TPS or Lean, as well as evolving TPS or Lean. There is no reason for that learning to stop. Yet the errors in thinking continue, the learning stops, and the old Lean thinking prevails. The result is that we can expect “no more than 10 percent of Lean turnarounds will succeed” to remain the current state far into the future. Shouldn’t we set a target condition of 50 percent success, and utilize all available information to help achieve that target?

Surprisingly, the top-level executive mindset that generates resistance to Lean management also generates resistance to new thinking among Lean movement leaders. And it’s not just Art; resistance to new thinking is widespread among the most admired Lean veterans, who together remain very influential among the younger generations. While cognitive biases are inadvertent, they nevertheless impede the advancement of Lean. That is a curious outcome given people’s lifelong efforts to advance Lean.

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