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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Every one loves innovation but hates innovators

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Friday, August 1, 2014 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Everyone loves innovation, but everyone hates innovators. What you describe, I fear, is a normal, same old, same old situation. Lean is mostly about technical improvements and self-reflexion but has little to say about the political aspects of change. Every change, any change is bound to challenge the status quo and people are ready to do so to varying degrees. The pace of change that accompanies any lean approach to management is clearly much faster than organizations are used to, and many, from shareholders to shop floor operators will feel overwhelmed by this, particularly at middle-management level.

As in all things lean I doubt there’s any easy remedy other than:
1. Understand whom you’re talking to: people resist, accept or embrace change to varying degrees. Some people feel they have nothing to learn, and will simply resist anything else than investment in known things. Others realize they need to learn, but feel they know what they need to fix, and will feel reassured by action plans and will resist deeper changes. Finally, some enjoy to learn to learn: constantly figuring out what is important and what less so in changing situations – these, typically, will be your change leaders. The challenge, though, is that one can’t only lead the people one wants to but all people. So different strokes for different folks.
2. Discuss changes constantly: observation and discussion are essential for people to get their heads around what is actually proposed, and no matter how much we feel we let others know what we have in mind, this is never as clear as we think. On one level, we need high level discussion of how we see situations evolving and why we need to change or die. At the other, we need to observe details with people, show the problem there and discuss what changes will mean for them, and how they intend to react.

The hard thing of course is that in lean, or indeed in any real change program, failure is often what success feels like. At any given time what you face are the innumerable obstacles in your way. This can obscure the fact that you are being successful in the changes overall. I know several lean executives that have a hard time reconciling the progress of their results on the indicators and bottom-line results and the daily struggle of getting people to think and do, rather than routinely reproduce what they’ve always done. Well, get used to it.

After a while we understand that when challenged, people’s immediate reaction doesn’t reflect their true feelings or attitudes to change. Many a guy can argue, bitch and moan, and then do it. Others, can agree to all and then do… nothing. Step by step changes lead to big changes IF we can stay the course – which is where leadership comes in, I guess.

In other terms, the real question is to distinguish whether you’re aggravating people because you’re doing something wrong or because you’re challenging the status quo too hard. There is no easy way to know other than separating problems and people and listening carefully to the objections if you can strip away the affect. Defenses of the status quo are usually clear cut: blame attribution (not my fault, no one told me, someone else was supposed to do this, that), justification (so busy with everything no time to…) and rationalization (in any case, what you ask for takes us in the wrong direction). Real challenges to your direction will come across as far more direct disagreements and are well worth taking into account. Life is always more complex than we think and, to quote Taiichi Ohno “even a thief is right three times out of ten.”

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