Lean manufacturing: Can employee resistance be transformed to buy-in?

The short answer is an emphatic “Yes.” There are many and varied reasons why Lean initiatives fail to launch well, stall in implementation, or die on the vine rather than flourish in sustainment. But in my experience as a Lean practitioner and organizational change consultant, there are a few keys to successful introduction and implementation. These are pointed directly at engaging employees in the process early and often to foster their understanding, and ultimately, their commitment to contributing to Lean success.

Meaning Matters. Sometimes the word “lean” itself can have a negative connotation; especially if the organization has a history of outsourcing and/or routinely cutting jobs to reduce costs. “Lean” can often sound as if it is an action word meaning, “Let’s get lean and do more with less." It’s no wonder that employees– and labor leaders  in unionized environments– hear the word “lean” and tune out, shut down or brace for battle. This is where a comprehensive educational introduction is critical in fostering  understanding of the concepts behind Lean and its purpose. Note: for those interested in launching a Lean process in unionized environments, please check a recent blog I posted titled "Can Lean manufacturing be implemented in a union environment?"

"Success with Lean is about helping employees understand that it’s a process that happens with them, not to them.

--Phil MInter

It’s also critical that leaders help employees understand how their work matters to overall outcomes. That’s where the Lean Daily Management System is so critical to creating employee buy-in. In a tire plant where I worked, the LDMS process included 10-minute meetings at the start of every shift so that team members could review the prior day’s performance on Key Performance Indicators like production, quality and safety. The use of a visual team board helped the group see performance trends, and connect the dots between their results and that of the overall plant. They talked about the opportunities and demands of the upcoming shift, and had the opportunity to offer suggestions, raise concerns and questions, and ultimately, to leave the meeting well-informed about the plan for the day, and their role in it.

Cut to the Chase. Talking about Lean without addressing employee concerns and fears is wasted breath. The leading concern about Lean among employees typically relates to job loss, so leaders need to address the issue head-on. If management is willing to commit that no job loss will result from Lean implementation, that news is sure to attract employees’ (and union leaders’) attention in positive ways. In the tire manufacturing plant I referenced, management made a verbal commitment to that effect, and it created an opportunity for employees to consider Lean on its merits, without the baggage of misinformation and fear of job loss. In that facility, which was unionized, having labor leaders understand Lean concepts and purposes went a long way in asking for their help in explaining it to their members.

Hearing not Telling. Lean is designed to reduce the seven “deadly forms of waste.” Reducing each of these– defects, overproduction, over processing, wasted motion, inventory (work in process), transport/handling and waiting– simply makes a facility better. Most employees have complained about these forms of waste for years, only for the complaints to fall on deaf ears. To create employee buy-in for the Lean process and to exponentially improve returns on the Lean investment, leaders should strive to practice the art of listening and assure that their Lean process creates mechanisms for employees to give meaningful input into improvements. As the people who do the work every day, employees  know it best and assuring their expertise is effectively heard and acted upon is critical. Success with Lean is about helping employees understand that it’s a process that happens with them, not to them.

What’s In It For Me? With the introduction of any change, everyone from the C-suite to the shop floor, naturally asks,“What’s In It For Me?” (WIIFM.) It’s not an unfair question. One way to get at the answer is to ask any supervisor or employee on a production line what constitutes a good day. Most of them would say it’s when the operation is smooth, when components show up on time and the machinery is running well. That’s exactly what Lean helped create on the tire plant’s tread production line through the use of Kanban, a simple signaling system that notified operators when production quotas had been met so they could assure they were only producing what was needed and at the time it was needed.  This resulted in a 25 percent reduction in the waste associated with over-production, and enabled operators to shift their time and attention to value-added tasks like preventive maintenance, housekeeping (to prevent waste associated with product contamination), kaizen process improvement projects, etc. It gave the operators greater flexibility in work tasks (which humans inherently desire), and enabled supervisors to devote their time and attention to coaching team members, rather than “putting out fires,” searching for in-process “stock” that ran out prematurely due to the over-production, or trying to locate space for storing over-produced treads that weren’t needed in the next manufacturing step.   

The Big Picture. In addition to understanding how Lean affects them personally, leaders need to assure employees also understand the business rationale for the change. The simple message of, “The only way to survive in (any) market, is to get better; to constantly improve” is logical and resonates with employees’ sensibilities. In my two decades as a member of the United Steel Workers of America, I came to understand  that  job security is not a function of a labor contract. No company can have language in the collective bargaining agreement which guarantees employment for the next 30 years. Real job security comes from being better than the competition, and that’s where Lean is a process to be embraced rather than shunned.

In summary, my emphatic “Yes” to the question of “Can Employee Resistance to Lean Manufacturing Be Transformed to Buy-In?” hinges first on a few core communication principles:

  • Give meaning to the need for change on a personal and organizational level and assure employees understand how their efforts contribute to operational performance;
  • Address employee concerns and fears in a straightforward manner, with sincere commitments about what happens– and doesn’t happen–  when Lean reduces waste, and;
  • Make employees central to Lean by soliciting their improvement ideas, tapping into their expertise in implementation, and continually gathering and listening to their feedback on how processes are working and can be improved further.

Applying these principles will not only minimize initial resistance to Lean, it will create high levels of commitment from employees who recognize that as they gain personal satisfaction from having meaningful involvement in workplace improvements, they also have a vested interest in helping achieve organizational success through a well-executed Lean initiative. And that is a win-win worthy of an emphatic “Yes!”

phil2Phil Minter is a member of the Consulting Consortium at Overland Resource Group, a 30-year-old firm specializing in helping its clients achieve operational improvement through employee engagement and labor-management collaboration.He is president and founder of Partners in Progress, LLC, which focuses on building employee engagement in operational improvement and creating internal capability for sustaining positive change. He is a Six Sigma Green Belt, is Lean Management Certified and ISO Internal Auditor Certified.Phil can be reached at p.minter@orginc.com.

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  • Very nice article, Phil. LEAN is a fierce, powerful, and demanding process if pursued to the full. Many times over the years I have helped implement employee engagement and labor-management collaboration in situations where LEAN was treated and managed as a totally different, parallel, and too often competing effort. And didn't play well with others. This usually occurred because LEAN was adopted and led by a different department than employee engagement or Organization Development - and somebody's personal and political career future rested on it being successful. This caused untold and unnecessary confusion and consternation among leaders and workers. A principle I would add to your list is to ensure that LEAN is integrated effectively with all people and improvement processes efforts across departments (or vice versa if LEAN is the flagship) and that the integration is communicated effectively to everyone in the facility, especially front-line supervisors, crew chiefs/stewards, and work teams.

    I so wish that those involved in the less than optimal situations I've seen had taken the time to consider, discuss, and pursue the very straightforward and sensible steps you describe. So much pain, angst, conflict, distrust, and yes, waste, would be avoided if the principles of LEAN implementation you describe so clearly were always a core part of LEAN planning and execution.

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  • Great article, very clear and actionable description of how to make it work, Phil. Employee engagement or involvement so often is the key to making ANY change that impacts the shop floor work. And, any workforce, whether unionized or not, is going to be very concerned about potential job loss these days. Without assurances that Lean will not cost jobs, it's unlikely that any group of employees will actively support a Lean initiative, and it's not unheard of that such efforts are sometimes even sabotaged. Talking to folks about what's going on, and why, AND listening to their responses is essential. You can tell 'em what you want to tell 'em, but unless you listen to their feedback, you don't know what they heard.

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