Resistance to Change: Myth & Reality

By Terry Durbin, Dee Zee Inc.

"Change your thoughts and you change your world" — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When an organization makes the collective decision to embark on the quest for a Lean transformation one of the first issues discussed is "How do we overcome resistance to change?" Frequently, much time and energy is spent on planning response strategies to an anticipated groundswell of misgivings and suspicions at the shop floor level. This is a misdirected effort analogous to the Waste of Unnecessary Processing in the manufacturing environment.

Resistance to change on the production floor is a myth.

People crave change.

To illustrate this, let's look at what our employees tell us. In virtually all employee surveys, in virtually all organizations, one of the weakest areas of performance is in the area of communication. We never seem to be able to communicate enough within our businesses. Communication of company goals, of expectations, of standards and of customer feedback all are cited as lacking.


Because people in all levels of a company are hungry for the information they need to improve job performance, to enhance their ability to respond to internal and external customer needs, and to be effective within a dynamic environment. Improvement, response, and dynamic efficiency are not static conditions. Our employees are asking us for the tools to change.

Why then do we encounter seemingly insurmountable levels of inertia when we try to implement Lean initiatives like 5S, One-Piece-Flow, Production Leveling, and Pull Systems? When we experience what we call resistance it is in actuality a simple demand for the right changes, or changes made in the right way.

Lean transformation is not a subtle shift in philosophy here at Dee Zee, Inc., or at any other company. It is much like dropping large stepping stones into a stream to form a path to the other side. The goal is worthy, but no matter where you stand your shoes are going to get wet. This �Splash-Effect' of improvement activities spreads out in all directions and touches many shoes.

Let's examine some of the functional areas that exist in our businesses and look at what we do during our Lean implementation activities that gets feet wet.

  • Value-Added/Shop Floor Operations. There is a Lean implementation myth that states that Lean initiatives must come from the top levels of management. In reality only the framework of the plan, and the support for it, should be designed at the top management level. If management mandates the improvement activities we will have ignored the empowerment principle of Lean Philosophy, and will convince our employees that nothing has changed.

    The actual change targets should be a result of careful evaluation of customer need, data analysis, and employee suggestion. You will find in most cases those three indicators provide mutual priorities. Act on what your employees already know to be the problems and resistance to change will transform itself into a bias for action. For the purposes of target identification, Production Management and Supervision are considered part of the shop-floor employee group.

  • Accounting. Will shop-floor changes result in changes to, or challenges for, the reporting of financial data, labor measurements, timekeeping, Bills-of-Material, or other functions the Accounting group might be responsible for? If so then the risk of resistance is real.

    Inclusion is again the answer. Get representatives from this area involved in brainstorming sessions as soon as the possibility of a splash is recognized. While participation does not guarantee support, exclusion will guarantee resistance.

  • Materials Management. Vendor/Buyer relationships are important and fragile things. Lean initiatives that involve raw material inventory reductions, point-of-use storage, Just-In-Time deliveries, and packaging/delivery changes must be carefully managed to minimize the stresses placed on those relationships.

    Change here can be particularly tricky, as your Lean initiatives will affect not only your own organization, but the vendor as well. If used wisely, however, the communication and idea sharing necessary to successfully implement such change can drop extra stones in our stream by bringing our supplier/partners into the Lean thinking process. You will find in many cases that your vendors are more Lean than you are, or are just as anxious to become Lean.

  • Quality. This group is traditionally very open to Lean initiatives, except where there is a perception that the integrity of documentation and data gathering procedures is threatened.

    In an ISO or QS environment we must realize that most Lean initiatives will have an impact on the regulatory requirements. Particular attention must be paid to documentation of activities, review of existing procedures, verification of results, and re-establishing effective process controls. Fortunately, most standard kaizen documentation provides a solid basis for ensuring compliance.

  • Sales. Reduced production cycle times, improved delivery, and order-based scheduling are attractive concepts, but the actual activities involved in the transition (production leveling, firm lead-times, WIP reductions) will appear to threaten the stability of existing systems. Be pro-active in dealing with these fears.

  • Maintenance/Skilled Trades. It is not difficult to visualize the impact of Lean activities on this group. In most facilities the maintenance/skilled trades department is always booked solid with high priority projects, and the demands of continuous improvement activities are rightfully seen as an added burden. Fortunately, these are also people who typically excel at accomplishing impossible tasks with short notice. The negative impact of equipment/layout/facilities changes can be minimized if we be sure to thoroughly brainstorm and simulate proposed changes prior to requesting the actual alterations.

  • Production Management/Supervision. Shop floor Lean initiatives impact this level directly. Anything which will effect the equilibrium on the floor will be viewed with skepticism at best, and out-right hostility is a possibility. The greater the need for Lean transformation, the greater the possibility that front-line management will resist it. This is not because managers are averse to change, but because the cost of failure is so great. Missed production schedules, increased negative labor variance, and out of control processes are risks that many of these folks are reluctant to assume. This group is also very adept at, and rightfully proud of, their ability to manage in a crisis environment. Many feel threatened by process improvements that eliminate the fire fighting at which they excel.

    The participation in all aspects of the improvement process from this group is essential. Not only for the sake of their comfort level, but also for the health of the Lean Implementation process itself. Front-line leadership, and Production Management are the most demanding jobs in manufacturing. The skills, instincts, and work ethic developed in these women and men provide a priceless resource for Lean.

  • Engineering. In many companies the Lean Implementation group itself is part of, or has its roots in, engineering. But the philosophy of rapid, continuous improvement, and many of the techniques utilized in kaizen methodology, can be difficult for traditionally trained engineers to accept. Cycle time measurements rounded to full second increments, and process improvements targeted at just 80% of the product mix, can rest in an Industrial Engineer's mind like a stone in his shoe.

    One of kaizen's core concepts is "Speak from data". Even though the data collection method used may be uncomfortably imprecise for a traditional I.E., he, or she, will respect the results if those results are backed up with documentation. In fact the Engineering follow-up necessary to change standards (and no improvement is complete until its standards are changed), can help to solidify the validity of the Lean process for the engineers involved.

The brief generalities listed above are not intended to be "magic bullets" to eliminate the problems your Lean operations will encounter. There certainly have been no magic solutions at Dee Zee. Only a careful implementation plan designed with your company's culture, and your co-worker's personalities in mind can give you a chance to do that.

However, if we begin our Lean transformations with, and conduct our improvement activities with, a mindset that accepts resistance as inevitable, then we will have an abundance of it.

Resistance to change is a waste. A waste of time, of energy, and a waste of motivation. As facilitators of Lean we are mandated by the very concept of continuous improvement to accept no waste as inevitable. So we must do whatever is needed to avoid creating it. To that end we need to find ways to ensure that we make the right changes, in the right ways. Doing so will solidify your Lean implementation plan, and create a unified, powerful team.