Posted by: Knightbird | June 28, 2010

Employee Buy-in to Lean

Lean tools require employees to essentially “bare the soul of their work” during Kaizen events. And everything an employee is taught by tough workplaces with micro managing bosses requires them to keep their work secret, and fix problems in a way that keeps as little attention as possible from being focused on them. When an employee is blamed for defects in the work product they have some responsibility for, they learn even more tools to keep defects secret or hidden. And they learn to play the blame game. Office politics is born out of employee protective devices or defenses. How can we break through these defenses.

I have had a lot of time to think about employee defenses, and lots of opportunities to see them in action. Unfortunately for most CEO’s, news deemed bad by employees is the last piece of news they want to see their boss receive. As a result, the CEO may be among the last to know about the bad news unless it is politically expedient for another employee to reveal the information.

Dr. Deming knew the solution to this problem many decades ago, but we in the United States were, for the most part, unwilling to consider his solution. Point number 8 from his 14 Points for Management is: “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.”

For Chugachmiut, our “No Blame, No Shame” culture was my first attempt to create a culture like Dr. Deming describes. I admit that I was not sure how this attempt would play out, or whether it would work, but it was amazing how readily many employees took to this change. No Blame, No Shame was started when one of my new employees came to me with a “preemptive strike,” that is, an attempt to let me know about another employee that was going to come to me to tell me about the bad things he was doing. I held up my hand in a stop motion and let the employee know that we were not going to do blame, we were going to find problems and continuously fix them.

I made a point to repeat this mantra when I had an opportunity to speak to employees as a group. I told them about studies that showed 94% of workplace  defects came from bad processes, and that employees were responsible for a very small number (6%). What I didn’t put into my earlier comments was the point about employees becoming responsible for, and accountable for, the processes they worked in. Many employees took any discussion about their behavior as a violation of the No Blame No Shame workplace.

Some employees still found it difficult to let go of information about their work processes as a result of their hiding behavioral training. In a couple of instances during Kaizen, we had employees experience symptoms similar to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) as they revealed the problems in the process they worked in. They became very defensive and prone to explaining all of the reasons why there were problems. I used to tell them that we didn’t need to be concerned about detailed explanations for the problems that did not lead to solutions. I tried to reassure them that we were there to make things better, not blame and accuse them of letting bad processes develop.

I probably should have let them explain even though in most cases the explanations were rationalizations and laying blame off on other employees. Today, employees don’t feel any need to explain defects in processes because they know they are not held responsible for the defect unless they fail to disclose its existence. This is the result I was hoping for, but unsure how to get to.

Today, as I said in an earlier blog, we don’t have annual performance appraisals. We take care of problems as they are revealed by the workplace. Employees feel empowered to bring problems to their peers and work on solutions without blaming each other. It sure makes the work environment a lot more comfortable.


  1. Hello, Patrick. I saw you speak at the Iowa Healthcare Collaborative Conference in Ames last year. I presented immediately after your keynote address…

    How long would you say it took from the time you started to spread the “no blame and shame” philosophy until you believed the culture had moved away from it?


  2. Hello Mark. What a great question. We noticed a considerable (substantial) shift in employee sentiment within 2 years of my first making the statement, which was in about May or June of 2005. The turning points (multiple) happened over a series of 6+ months when we held regular week long Kaizen in late 2006 and early 2007. Employees began to learn that it was OK to ask why without feeling blamed or shamed for the way processes work. Today they all feel the right to question our processes as long as we work to improve them as a team.

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