This book is about people. The focus is people interactions which includes what people feel, think, do, and don’t do. We will explore the rich and ever-changing world of people at work.

Although the importance and complexity of this world is acknowledged, its value is vastly underrated and some of the methods and models used to enhance the people side of work do more harm than good.

Our theme includes the business arena of organizational development, change management, and more specifically, Lean Thinking and continuous improvement.

We will make the case that specific and misunderstood issues concerning how people interact in the workplace are magnified when organizations make changes.

This book was designed for people who:
Want their organization to get the work done easier, faster and with better quality
Want employees to end the day satisfied
Seek better ways to enhance employee impact
Are comfortable with uncertainty.

I began the formal study of people and performance enhancement fifty years ago. Forty-one years ago I began consulting with companies. I’ve written management books, spoken at conferences and run many workshops; I know the field well.

This book arose out of my frustration with managers who seek silver bullets, who don’t want to change, who unthinkingly follow trends expecting others to do the same and don’t know how to connect to human beings.

It also arose from my sympathy for the frontline worker who holds up a hand, hoping to share a good idea, but is ignored. And from my sympathy for the millions of workers who want to do the best job they can while those around them send text messages, gossip, and do shoddy work.

This book is as practical as I could make it. My intent was to create a way for any interested manager to mobilize and inspire his or her troops and for executive leadership to lead in ways that truly work. And it is for the worker who wants to contribute.

The motto of my company, Collective Wisdom, is from an old Japanese saying: None of us is as smart as all of us. In action, this means creating teams that are greater than the sum of their parts. I learned long ago that one person can quickly sort out what to do independently, and is frequently more efficient alone than working with others. Unless the group can work well together, the firepower of collective intelligence is lost and/or frustrated. We have all worked in committees that swirl around every thought, but are agonizingly slow at reaching conclusions. I have made it a point in my career to include, rather than exclude, while at the same time, improving how people interact. The power of people efficiently working together is unlimited.

For more than a decade, I have investigated and documented how Lean Thinking and continuous improvement are fundamentally flawed outside the production environment. To truly benefit from Lean Thinking’s strength in process improvement, we must discover how to upgrade and enhance people interactions to an even greater extent than we improve processes.

This book calls attention to people interactions in the workplace, a vast, and as yet, inadequately tapped resource of sustainable continuous improvement.

The Perception Problem

The mysteries of astrophysics provide a perfect metaphor for what is happening in Lean Thinking and change management as a whole.

Einstein’s E=mc2 is probably the most famous equation in history. His theory and subsequent derivative equations from other cosmologists have created testable predictions and led to many discoveries, most recently, the Higgs Boson. About thirty years ago, measurements showed that galaxies were spinning faster than they should have. Later, research found the universe, itself, was expanding faster than predicted. These facts had to be reconciled with the equations that predicted otherwise. Science is based on honest observations, interpreting the observations, and continually testing the interpretations.

Accepted thinking today is that there is “dark” matter we cannot yet see and “dark” energy we cannot yet measure.

We face the same problem in Lean Thinking and continuous improvement. It remains a mystery why our efforts do not come close to what we expect.

Seeking the facts, testing our understanding, and looking for root causes and effective solutions will inevitably lead to identifying and overcoming the poor results of Lean Thinking. Our findings will provide you with ways to significantly improve your Lean efforts, as well as other change initiatives and, more importantly, daily operations.

Our working assumption is there is a reason why change initiatives do not succeed as well as we think they should. Our improvement expectations from Lean are reasonable and our methodology is sound. There is something happening we do not see. Or, if we see it, we don’t pay it sufficient attention to overcome its negative effect. There is Lean matter and energy that is dark, hidden from view.

Just as astrophysics has predicted much of what we are now learning about the universe, I believe the dark matter and dark energy of Lean Thinking have been identified in the past. Lessons learned then, however, were not successfully applied because the findings have been less than appreciated by the business world. This happens most often when leaders apply Lean and other change initiatives like a coat of paint, expecting this new look will immediately lower costs and increase profits.

This misapplication mimics the promise of Six Sigma in reducing process variance down to miniscule levels. This effort is exactly the opposite of what we want to accomplish with people. We encourage and moreover need diversity of approaches and innovative ideas; the trouble is: we don’t know what to do with these differences; and in the workplace, deliberately or inadvertently, minimize them to achieve process improvement goals.

We sense people may be the weak link in much of what we do. But, people themselves are not the problem; rather, our approach to people is the problem. We don’t know how to fully engage employees in change efforts. What we do now doesn’t work. It is error-prone, misguided, vastly underpowered and almost totally misunderstood by leadership, management and the Lean Thinking community.

We need a clear-eyed view of the problem and an equally clear-eyed view of solutions.

I designed this book to be read in an hour or so. Understanding the material is the easy part and can be done quickly. Applying the information is more difficult. Near the end of the book are practical steps of how to implement the ideas. This was not intended to be an exhaustive and documented exploration of change or Lean Thinking. Instead, what I hope you will acquire is new respect for the power of employees, perhaps a sense of dismay at how negligent we have been with them and renewed enthusiasm to unleash what has been suppressed for so long.

Like those astrophysicists, our approach is guided by a theoretical equation:

I = q

As you know, Lean Thinking is process improvement through the elimination of waste. Its poor sustainability is due to missing, ignoring, or minimizing critical elements of change. Our formula helps us focus on these elements. This is the formula translated into English:

Improving is questioning

“Improving” is process improvement, sometimes described as continuous improvement. Continuous improvement is often force-fed from the top down, with scant acknowledgment of the employee distress such change may cause. Worse, this distress is viewed as a problem to solve, instead of as a symptom that improvement is being done wrong.

“Questioning” is an environment ripe with opportunities to ask, to disbelieve, to wonder, to fearlessly point out what is and isn’t happening. Lean Thinking promotes questioning, sure, like, “How can we improve the process?” Asking “why” five times is a common Lean method to uncover root causes. But Lean questioning is about process improvement. How often does Lean ask questions about people interactions? Not at all, as far as I can see. The right kind of questioning for our purpose is asking questions about what we think, how we work best together, how leadership functions, how we feel about our jobs, and how satisfied we are at the end of the day. The psychosocial fundamentals of the workplace are known, of course. However, they are not emphasized enough in change management to produce acceptable results.

Let’s use transplanting a rosebush that isn’t thriving as a metaphor of change. We want to improve the growth of the rosebush. Finding it bare and spindly, we would like to see an explosion of beautiful red flowers. If we replant the bush in the same type of soil that it was in before, we probably will not get good results. Change requires an environment that fosters and supports it. Most change initiatives are add-ons, like afterthoughts, with the expectation from leadership that if people receive the right instructions, the change process will succeed. Data show this isn’t what happens. We can do better.

Carlos Venegas of Straus Forest, (now Kaizen Rocket), a colleague of mine, was about to begin a three-day kaizen event. He wanted to invest a precious hour or more creating a team of the participants before they began the process improvement work. A leader among the group told him he didn’t want to waste time on team building. Carlos, who is aware of the dark matter and dark energy of Lean, said team building was non-negotiable and the executive sponsor agreed. So the team building took place, and it was a good thing it did. During the team building, Carlos discovered critical information. Not only did most participants feel the kaizen topic was a poor use of time; many were actually against the effort. Only by integrating team building into process improvement could he identify important issues that had to be resolved before they could start the traditional kaizen. The point is: team building should be a standard part of kaizen work, but is ignored because it is not viewed as an important component of process improvement. This is a problem we must recognize and overcome. The majority of Lean experts today are unaware of this fact.

Improvement is not a dirty word. People do not avoid, resent, or resist improving. They want to improve. People may resist change; but usually, that’s because they do not view the change as an improvement. This is another perception problem. There are dozens more we could identify, but you get the point. Our focus on process improvement, born out of assembly work, blinds us to the vast people riches that we regard today as problems to overcome.

These misperceptions of continuous improvement efforts are why Lean dark matter and dark energy exist:
We do not see the people elements of change well enough.
We do not understand the relationship between process improvement and people.
We think we’re doing the right things when we are not.

After a look at what “I” is, we will fully explore where “q” leads us.

The Change Problem

We mentioned at the outset that change initiative results are abysmal. Yet, change has become a constant. Organizations are competing by trying this, that and the next thing to stay ahead of competitors and are not spending their resources wisely.

Researchers and experts have looked at the data and determined results do not meet expectations. Below are some of the people who agree that something is wrong with change management.

Beer, M. and Nohria, N. 2000, “Cracking the code of change.” Harvard Business Review, Vol.78, Issue.3, pp.133-141.
Hammer, M. and Champy, J. 1993, Reengineering the corporation: a manifesto for business revolution, London: Nicholas Brearly.
Kotter, J.P. 2008, A Sense of Urgency. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Senturia, T., Flees, L. and Maceda, M. 2008, Leading Change Management Requires Sticking to the Plot. Bain and Company.

What the above-listed authors and others have concluded is startling. Overall, the percentage of change initiatives that could be defined as successful is: 30%

Lean Thinking success is even lower. Organizational change has become a black hole of resources and emotional well-being. You may as well concede that unless you change how you change, these initiatives will squander time and money, and disenfranchise staff.

The seventy percent failure rate is a call to arms to determine what is going wrong. However, like most statistics, this number, although clear, simple and direct, is misleading.

All change initiatives are not alike. They don’t have the same components, complexity, outcomes, priorities and so on. A less than stellar outcome may be balanced by increased awareness and motivation that bodes well for the next improvement effort. The number is only a number and should not be assumed as the definitive statistic that best describes every type of change initiative. However, no matter what the number, change efforts are not as effective as they should be. We would be wise to consider thirty percent as a reason to be worried. Many think they know why this number is so low.

Here is a short list:

Vague or confusing strategy
Competing priorities
Uninformed frontline managers
Conflicting messages
Too many change efforts
Making economic value the motivation at the cost of employee well-being
Workers who don’t care about the change
Key leaders who don’t care
Progress is hard to measure
Resources not sufficiently allocated
Technology not up to the task
Communication insufficient to inform or engage
Ownership of change effort inadequate or absent
Employees unsure how to make changes, or what is allowed or expected
Unsure what goals or activities should take precedence
Misunderstood systems consequences

There are others, but you get the idea. There is more going on with change than simply improving how the work is done.

Many of the items on our list have to do with people. Some of the problems may be technical resources, adherence to policies, or strategy and the like, but for the most part, intertwined with process improvement is the neglected power and potential of human beings. Let’s take a look at a few examples of where the problems lie.

The first place that Lean dark matter and dark energy come into being is the boardroom or the executive leadership meeting room. This is where, behind closed doors, spirited meetings take place about how to implement strategy. Debates can last for hours and go on for weeks, or months, before a clear path can be identified. Then, the initiative is rolled out (with attached talking points) to staff. Without the benefit of even partially processing this new information, employees are expected to get with the program right now. Of course, this doesn’t work. But it is the well-worn path of change initiatives.

Many change management consultants understand this self-defeating behavior and have developed clever ways of defining the problem and addressing it. This is both good and bad. It is good because it strives to understand and improve the people side of continuous improvement. It is bad because this legion of experts attempt to simplify complex human beings to the degree they can be managed by less than adequate managers. The popular grief reaction to change is a classic example of doing more harm than good.

In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the world to her five stages of grief. Since then, well-meaning, but misguided change practitioners have applied those steps to organizational change. Clients are not helped; and the effort adds nothing but confusion and unnecessary work. It is a misapplication of a narrow and incomplete psychological model.

Kübler-Ross herself noted that the stages are only a partial list of possible grief-related emotions, they can occur in any order, that not everyone experiences all five, and that loss is an individual experience. And yet, change experts promote what is often called the change curve, resplendent with Kübler-Ross terms that must be overcome by that particular expert’s tools, advice, and skills.

Almost always, or maybe always, there is a dip in acceptance on this curve; sometimes called the “pit of despair” that demonstrates how toxic change is to a company. No wonder change initiatives fail so often; who’d want to endure all that?

The satisfaction of these experts with this model is almost palpable; like surgeons, they rush in to save the patient from almost certain death.

Fortunately, facing death and facing a change in the overtime schedule are not the same. Death is inevitable, usually unpleasant, irreversible, scary, and is a forever transition into the unknown. Most company changes are inconvenient, irritating, seen as misguided, open to interpretation and, often enough, ignorable. Not much symmetry there.

The kind of thinking that applies Kübler-Ross’s grief reaction model to company change is flawed and leads to self-fulfilling prophecy. What we look for we see. What we see we fix, even if it really doesn’t exist and doesn’t help sustain change.

Another insidious pseudoscience application is using personality profiles to analyze people and their interactions. Perhaps the most popular in business today is the Meyers-Briggs material. This, too, is counter-productive. In spite of our desire to enhance how well we integrate the people elements into change efforts, trying to measure and simplify the complex individual into a set of personality characteristics, or a formula, isn’t helpful and doing it wrong is worse. The misuse of Kübler-Ross and using scientifically unsupported methodology hides the true issues and opportunities and hampers our efforts to improve. Understanding change doesn’t have to be rocket science, but at least, it should be science.

Here are a few relevant findings from a more scientific point of view that will illuminate what might comprise more of our dark matter and dark energy.

The Gallup organization, studying the people side of business, found that only twenty-nine percent of employees are emotionally engaged in their work. (Makes you wonder about the connection with the thirty percent success rate of change.) They also found that about nineteen percent are actively disengaged in their work, actually badmouthing the company and doing other things that negatively affect success. That leaves about half of employees just putting in their time. According to Gallup, this lack of engagement leads to decreased productivity, poorer customer service and quality of goods, and poses an impediment to safety, retention and profits. Surely, this affects the change environment too, probably more than the lack of engagement affects daily work.

In a study of project management, PricewaterhouseCooper found that less than three percent of companies successfully completed all their projects. Similarly, an article in the Harvard Business Review found that one in six projects had cost overruns of two hundred percent and schedule overruns of almost seventy percent, in spite of vigorous project management. Lean Thinking is worse. Industry Week reported that only two percent of Lean programs achieved their anticipated results. The Shingo Prize people, upon follow-up of some of their award-winning companies, found, to their dismay, that many did not sustain the gains.

There is a big problem here.

Kim Cameron, a professor at the University of Michigan business school suggests what it is. He says, “Techniques like Six Sigma, Lean management—those can all be critical and are a savvy set of tools, techniques, and processes. But the human side, the soft side of that equation, is often more important than we give it credit for.”

Let’s take a deeper look at the soft-side underbelly of American business. Company meetings may be a fruitful place for us to explore Lean dark matter and dark energy. According to one study, there are seventeen million meetings held every day in the United States. That’s a huge number of people sitting down to be informed and figure things out. A University of Minnesota study suggests that upwards of half of that meeting time is unproductive. No surprise there. Another illustration of the importance of the people interaction side of change comes from Industry Week, which estimated the waste of meeting time amounts to throwing away thirty-seven billion dollars a year; calling meetings “the great white collar crime.”

The dark matter and dark energy of change is effectively hidden. We vaguely recognize some, but we need to identify all of it.

We all sense the problems: boring meetings, communications that don’t communicate, leaders who can’t lead, ideas that don’t make sense, and coworkers who don’t work. But we don’t seem to see the people problems well enough to make them a priority in Lean Thinking.