Posted by: Knightbird | February 23, 2015

Barriers to Implementation of Lean Thinking—Fear

Employees have varying responses to the stress they encounter in the workplace. In a traditional command and control environment, they learn how to adapt. As I think about successful Kaizen in my career, it becomes clearer to me how the fear response can be a barrier to a lean implementation. Very few lean implementations I have read about have paid much attention to why employees resist—vigorously in many examples. If we know why employees resist, we may be able to help reduce resistance and help employees embrace the change they encounter. Face the fear response head on. I believe that stress based fear can come from 3 sources: developmental stress (such as Adverse Childhood Experiences while growing up); acute and repeated stress (as an adult or employee); and traumatic stress (PTSD type). Every manner of stress affects both behavior and reaction, most likely in different way. For example, developmental stress can affect many persistent behaviors that can include alcohol abuse, smoking, anger and violent behaviors, depression, illness with frequent absence, and an inability to work with co-workers effectively. There are undoubtedly many more behavioral adaptations in the workplace, as well as outside it. Acute and repeated stress can foster certain behaviors in the workplace as well. Becoming possessive about ones workspace (claiming your territory) can be an attempt to create a safe place. Avoiding interactions with a supervisor you have can be a sign, especially if that next level supervisor typically delivers bad news. Posturing, that is claiming credit for positive results, and avoiding responsibility, are other signs of acute and repeated stress. Claiming credit, and receiving positive accolades, feed the reward system of your brain, which should make you want even more praise. Research on acute and repeated stress has shown that a victim often decreases willingness to explore and enter into social interactions. If you try something new and fail, you have a greater chance for negative feedback and the creation of fear at losing your job. It also makes you more sensitive to negative feedback from fellow employees, especially if you hear them laying blame for workplace failures on your performance. Employees also create a network of confidants for justifying poor performance. This becomes the employee underground. They don’t have enough help. There is too much work. Customers are too demanding. What I do is really hard. It’s someone else’s fault because they don’t carry their own weight. Management is at fault. The excuses are limitless. In a fearful environment, employees will respond in one of three ways: fight, flee or freeze. Does that sound familiar? I have experienced all there. I had one manager who didn’t like a recommendation from their boss (me) and a peer. They immediately threw a fit and reacted I ways that I would not have anticipated. I counseled a cooling off period with a discussion later. That counsel was rejected and a resignation tendered. I ultimately accepted the resignation. In another case, I had 2 employees providing the same service. They both checked the workload for each other and vigorously resisted any workload greater than their co-worker. Productivity was extremely low, but there were an incredible number of excuses for the low productivity. After we began improvement work, both employees resigned. They were apparently heavily invested in their world of excuses. My colleague, TM, refers to this a being heavily invested in failure. While I don’t have a complete answer to solving this dilemma, I believe I have made some progress in my thinking. We need to make work a safe place, and for the past 25 years I have been an advocate of Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s principle for driving fear from the workplace. Dr. Deming also postulated that 96% of defective work comes from bad systems, and only 4% from people issues. I use this information as part of a strategy to eliminate blaming employees for poor performance and shaming them for bad results. And part of a good lean workplace is the recognition of problems as “Treasures.” My first Sensei, TJ, advised us to create a virtual Treasure Chest to store problems and address them at the first opportunity. And from John Shook, I draw heavily upon his advice to concentrate your efforts on changing the culture of your organization at the ground level—employees who work in the value streams. You need to require their participation in Kaizen, but make sure that their work is covered. If they are fearful of their backlog increasing, they cannot concentrate on the work of improvement. A 5 day Kaizen is chock full of training. And there is a lot to learn. Make sure the learning is interactive and hands on. You want to demonstrate the value of teamwork when solving problems. For managers, it’s a more difficult process. They are heavily invested in their success and approval. They crave it. At this level, you are very likely to see the protective behaviors I describe above. Mid level managers—between the C Suite and the production level—need to learn how to become responsible for Value Streams instead of functional silos of work. They need to learn how to accept dead time in the workplace, and put it to improvement uses. The skill set they relied on to get their promotions changes, and they are fearful of dead-ending. Some of them will leave to seek a workplace where they can continue their skill set. That’s not a bad result. You then have an opportunity to hire someone more accepting of the changes being made. We also have to accept and plan for the inevitable, a complete breakdown by an employee with extreme fear issues. Unrelenting stress, a fight response, anger with throwing and banging objects as well as running or hiding may happen. Again, try to create a safe space for that employee as you work to reduce their fear and stress. The fear and stress may be coming from other places, and brought into the workplace just because they work there. By demonstrating understanding, providing help and supporting the health of your employee, you build a great workplace that reduces fear. That can help you increase employee teamwork and focus on value creation for their customers.

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