I recently ran across the article, “Ten Signs You Work in a Fear-Based Workplace.” This article seems to have caught a lot of attention– perhaps because so many of us have, at one time or another, worked in a fear-based environment. What I find particularly interesting, however, is how many within the lean community seem to believe that lean efforts are always a cure for this. It is important to note that projects identified as “lean” now come in a wide range of forms. And from what I have seen, some of these are definitely not the answer; in fact, poorly implemented lean efforts can instead be a major contributor to workplace fear.
Why do I say this? I have spoken with too many people who will not speak up about basic problems with their organizations’ lean implementation. After hearing what lean can really do, some become troubled when they see it implemented as a series of narrowly-defined projects that seem focused on shaving costs by stretching existing methods a little further. This is compounded by the negative reaction they face when they raise concerns. It is not hard to see how this contributes to a belief that that real feedback is not valued–that any negative comments will be seen as a challenge to what they perceive to be top-down driven initiative. The result is mistrust and fear.
This is not to say that poor implementation of lean initiatives can be blamed for all of the ten signs of fear–just four of them (at least per my count, not necessarily in the same order):
- Relying on rules and rhetoric vs. questioning the details. Too often I hear and read that one of the greatest problems with implementing lean is resistance from middle managers. But in a system that thrives when people recognize that “the devil is in the details” and question everything (think of Ohno’s 5 Why’s), is it really best to assign blame to people who do not automatically jump on board? Perhaps it would be best to study their concerns, rather than to emphasize their non-conformance, which can contribute to an environment of distrust.
- Concentrating on giving the right appearance. How can lean efforts succeed where people believe that identifying issues outside of the narrow range where they are asked to focus will make them appear to not be a “team player”?
- Focusing on the numbers. I often write about the dangers of directly targeting desired outcomes. One hazard is that measuring success based on attaining discrete waste reduction targets tends to trivialize the approach, creating a perception that “this is nothing new,” which can undermine confidence in leadership (a key driver of fear.)
- Prizing “brown-nosers.” Ignoring feedback seems to promote a perception that those held in highest esteem are the individuals who espouse the benefits of lean, regardless of whether they understand its real implications.
Let me emphasize that going lean is not the problem; the problem is implementing poorly conceived waste reduction projects in the name of lean. In contrast, I have written about organizations that clearly see the need for creating real excitement in the workforce (you can read more about the criticality of generating this excitement in my upcoming book, The Going Lean Fieldbook).