The soft stuff is the hard stuff

Whoever coined the phrase “the soft stuff is the hard stuff” sure knew what he was talking about. Over the past 20 years Lean Ireland consultants have had the pleasure and privilege of consulting with a wide variety of organisations in Ireland. The beginnings of the engagement are typically the most challenging from the point of view of convincing senior managers that the Lean Six Sigma (LSS)  programme will be of tangible benefit to themselves and to their customers. In this article I will outline to you some of my own experiences as an external consultant, regarding the type of resistance to change that I have met. Also I will share with you some of the countermeasures that I have found helpful in ensuring a transition to a smarter way of working.

Lean Ireland clients range from the public service, to manufacturing, to financial services and other sectors besides. In the past 20 years a phenomenal change has happened within the Irish continuous improvement (CI) movement. Many medium to large organisations (100+ employees) now engage an internal CI Manager, who was charged with bringing about the transformation of their processes. George Eckes once described Six Sigma as ”a management philosophy that attempts to improve customer satisfaction to near perfection”(Making Six Sigma Last, 2007). Why then to both the external consultant and the internal CI Manager meet resistance, particularly in the first year or two of the programme? There are many answers to this question and many reasons why people do not accept change with open arms.

We’re different, aka the ‘Not invented here’ syndrome

Early on in my career I learned that senior managers of successful organisations often do not see the benefit at all of undertaking a LSS programme. The origin of this scepticism (and by the way, scepticism is a healthy thing) is that lean originated with the Toyota Motor company and Six Sigma originated with Motorola, an electronics manufacturer. How then can LSS possibly apply in their sector? This is a reasonable question.

I  delivered to the senior team of  a very successful pharmaceutical manufacturer, what I thought was a particularly convincing argument to undertake a LSS programme. In the pause that followed my presentation, the engineering director’s response was a simple “Bernie, we’re not widget manufacturers!”  That fairly took the wind out of my sails and was a very good early lesson in perception being reality. And it’s not just confined to pharmaceutical manufacturing. Quite recently an experienced financial services candidate on one of our certified learning programmes, indicated to me, with conviction, that SPC only applies to manufacturing. This type of resistance arises essentially because the person quite simply doesn’t understand or see how the tools could possibly apply within their organisations. There are countermeasures, that I have found useful  to deal with that type of resistance.

  • Keep the faith. The first and most important one for any CI manager or consultant is to keep the faith. If you understand with absolute conviction that what you are proposing would benefit your client, your client’s customers and  suppliers, then believe in yourself and be persistent. Find alternative strategies to convince the sceptics.
  • Engage an external advocate. Introduce a guest presenter to the organisation. This is ideally a senior manager who has led a LSS transformation programme in a sector the same as, or similar to your client sector. Facilitate an open Q&A with the guest practitioner to enable better understanding. This really helps to convince senior managers that, yes, the LSS programme does apply within their sector.

That’s something my team needs to do

The second most common type of resistance I encounter on the part of senior managers is the belief that this change programme is something that their team needs to do. They are senior managers because they are successful at what they do, so why learn a new way of doing things? Us change agents need to be mindful of the tenet of Dr. Edwards Demming i.e. that 85% of process problems in an organisation are the responsibility of management. However managers don’t necessarily always see it that way.

I regularly come across senior team members who don’t engage with the programme other than say a superficial “I support it”. Overcoming that level of disengagement is challenging, but can be done with patience and persistence.

  • Employ guerrilla tactics. Start with the middle management team and work with them to convince key members that this transformation is worthwhile. Get them on board, and train them such that they can become effective advocates within the organisation. Nothing succeeds like success, so their process improvements will help to convince others.  
  • Sell the career benefits.  It is undoubtedly true that personnel who certify at the various belts levels such as yellow, green black belt, in general do better within the organisation than their colleagues who have not had that formal training. A search of job sites will show how these certifications are valued by organisations across all sectors. The reason is that there’s a high element of leadership and teamwork training is built in with the technical tools in a LSS certification. These soft skills are highly valued, especially in a candidate who can work across disciplines.
  • Build success in key departments/areas. The third countermeasure is to build success within a specific department or area. A balanced transformation is ideal. However if the support does not exist from the senior team, then this is a viable interim alternative. Gradually, and  it may take a year or two, the senior managers begin to realise that the people who report to them are becoming a lot more competent and knowledgeable about process management than they are. This discomfort may spur them to participate more actively and take their own learning journey more seriously.

How soon will we see results?

The third major form of resistance that I come across is impatience to get results. It’s as if the consultant or the CI Manager is expected to be a magician who pulls rabbits out of a hat on a frequent basis. This form of resistance is often expressed as “we don’t have time to spend on training, we’re too busy”. Again, it’s lack of understanding the need for investment in time upfront, in order to reap the benefits later. The following are some of the countermeasures that I use.

  • Start 5 years ago. When meeting this type of ‘instant results’ resistance, it may help to be very understanding and say “Yes of course, I know. it would have been better if you had started five years ago”. This usually takes the impatient person aback a little. Go on to explain that if they had started five years ago, the performance level of processes would now be so much improved, that customers would be singing their praises. If you are knowledgeable about the sector you can quote improvements experienced by other organisations (provided this knowledge is in the public domain or you are allowed to share same). That provides food for thought and encourages the adoption of  a more long-term and strategic approach to the change programme.  
  • Lifelong journey. It is necessary to make participants aware that this is a lifelong journey. They may think they are too busy today to do training, but you need to lay it out for them that they are busier than they need to be because processes are suboptimized. At regular intervals in a rhythmic fashion, personnel within the organisation will be trained on aspects of the LSS approach. This training is essential part of everybody’s job, from the chairman of the board to the janitor. It not something extra or temporary in nature, it is a lifelong learning journey.
  • Bring in relevant Irish case studies. Thanks to all the vibrant Lean organisations that exist throughout Ireland, it’s easy to get your hands on case studies. Lean Business Ireland and many consultants have case studies up on their websites. The regional Lean Forum in your area may help as well. To participate,  Google the Dublin, South East, South West and Mid West Lean forum, as well Agile Lean Ireland. These organisations, run mostly by volunteer practitioners, organise events on a regular basis. Also the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, the ICBE and a number of Lean Skillnets are useful publicly funded sources of information.
  • Best practice visits. In addition to the Lean organisations, it is relatively easy to organise best practise visits. Seeing is believing there is nothing like visiting a site that is undertaking a transformation programme.  In addition to Irish site visits, the two Toyota sites in the UK the engine size in North Wales and the Corolla site in Derby they are open to visitors. Of course visiting a car manufacturing site would not be relevant to many sectors, such as most branches of the public service and also financial services. When it comes to a such a sector, find a similar organisation and organise a visit.  

Those are my tips on how to overcome the “not invented here” and “we’re too busy” syndromes. Remember to be patient and persistent. Lead by demonstrating examples of success. Scepticism is healthy and to be expected. The biggest sceptics often turn out to be the strongest advocates in the long run.

I  welcome your comments especially if you’d like to share a countermeasure you have to  overcome change resistance within your organisation. As always if you have any questions please be sure to contact us – we are here to help.

Bernie Rushe
Managing Director and Principal Consultant
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