March 30, 2011

Mixing Lean Management with Positive Change Approaches

Guest post by Nicolas Stampf ( Appreciating Systems for Genuine Efficiency.

I’m a computer scientist by training. I’ve been trained in fixing problems using computers (by developing applications or building a computer architecture and network for that purpose). And then I’ve been trained in Lean Six Sigma in the context of IT operations. When I was young, I loved to dismantle mechanical clocks and build them back afterwards. So, I’m originally attracted to all things related to problem solving or, what I’ve come to know, deficit-based approaches.

When I began coaching people to “do Lean management”, I came to know, first hand, what “change resistance” is all about. Here I was trying to convince people to apply that new fantastic method I’ve come to know that can help detect problems so they can fix them, all for the triple mutual benefits of customers, stakeholders and employees. Really. I mean, really, really. But they just won’t do it despite all my pledge and investment in helping them doing it. Well, being kind people, they’d do it while I was there but stopped as soon as I turned my back.

Investigating the Lean community, I discovered that rumors have it that our Lean turnover success rate is as high as… 2%. Yes, that means Lean transformations fail 98% (ninety eight) of the time. So, despite the huge benefits one can and does get out of the method, if it’s not applied, it’s just useless. So this is how I decided to go and search for some more powerful change methodology.

To keep a long story short, having heard of systems thinking, I decided to investigate that path. After reading Peter Senge’s “Fifth Discipline” (wonderful, I recommend it!), I quickly derailed to Chris Argyris double-loop learning, David Bohm Dialogue and, from then, into the works of Palo Alto’s Mental Research Institute where systems thinking have been applied to communication. I dived into Bateson and Watzlawick works and, in the end, discovered Appreciative Inquiry, Solution Focus and Positive Deviance.

And then the light came in. I mean, before, I was trying to study darkness and get it out of the room. Now, someone showed me the light switch (as a LinkedIn member commented on a forum). Magic. There was the solution, both to MY problem and to the problem of Lean as well! Or so I thought. To my problem, because I had a path to look for: what worked when doing Lean, I could do more of it. To Lean transformation: by putting more positive into Lean, it should be easier and prettier to teach to people. Indeed, things turned not to be that easy. The Lean community already knows what works: when top management is personally involved and people are doing it themselves (learning by doing). Then, we’re back at the beginning: how can we engage people to do it.

So, my current train of thoughts is that we can probably identify what’s already positive in Lean and present it that way to people and, at the same time, change some approaches to Lean to move it from a deficit-based approach, to a more positive-based approach. Some Lean tools seem to fit very well with this, such as policy deployment (known as “hoshin kanri” in Lean), where top management gives the strategic direction and lower levels in the hierarchy identify ways for them to contribute. Standardization of good practices is also clearly a positive approach since it already builds on what works well and proposes these improvements to the community for their own take over and further improvement (known as “yokoten”).

What still needs further investigation on my part is how continuous improvement (identifying small problems and fixing them one by one) can be fitted with a positive-based approach. Hopefully, people are already investigating this as well in the LinkedIn group “Strength-based Lean Thinking / Six Sigma”.

It is said that Lean has two pillars: Kaizen (which means continuous improvement in Japanese) and Respect for People. Yet, it’s no news that Lean builds its continuous improvement on identifying and fixing problems. As such, it is a deficit approach that can easily induce finger pointing or a defensive stance from the people in charge of solving these problems. Hopefully, in Lean, we can blame the process (i.e. the system) because W. Edwards Deming authorized us to do that.

Indeed, it’s just not sexy to invest time in discovering and fixing problems in one’s own perimeter or, worse, in that of others. As a manager, it means you have to constantly remind people to improve what they can. It’s hard not to associate these problems with your past actions. Only social constructionists can easily blame the system for the current situation (“recently read on Internet: “what you see is how we think”) – Deming has long been forgotten. Others take it for them, and it hurts. Just ask someone to give you a negative comment on something in your area of responsibility (not necessarily something you did yourself). See how it hurts? Doing Lean management is like greeting people with a “Hello, how bad things are going today?” It’s just crazy when you stop and think about it.

Now, positive-based approaches allow a manager to greet his employees with a “Hello, what good things are happening today?” Should your own manager greet you like this, wouldn’t you be willing to do even better tomorrow? I know I surely would! In the end, though there is probably still a lot of work to be done to mix positive-based approaches with Lean, I know I won’t turn back from the positive. I’ve adopted the social constructionist stance toward life, and I now know too well that I’m as much responsible for my world as the rest of the world itself. So, instead of letting my past influence my future, I’ve recently decided to reverse the causality of time and let my future influence my present. And that means I have to decide what my future should look like. Between problems and opportunities, I chose. What about you?


  1. NIcolas

    Great post. I loved the way you made your current approach the outcome of a learning journey -- that wasn't too easy!

    Same for me. In my own experience, the trick seems to be to use both deficit based and positive approaches, but only at a pace that is consciously chosen by a team. A purely appreciative direction ultimately can build up a kind of charge over time to go look into the darkness lest the process becomes unreal, and it is wise to have ways to help people step through that. As you say, dealing with the darkness alone, however, can also be quite demoralizing -- people won't go there at all or stay there forever, so the challenge is to help people find a middle way that gives them a foundation for moving in either direction as is needed.

    For example, in my line of work (OD and leadership development), there are exercises to help people give feedback to one another -- an area that usually spawns resistance. And even when the focus is ONLY on giving positive feedback to others that resistance can still show up. I encourage people to talk together about the experience of solely positive feedback and appreciative comments -- once they've tried a little of it -- and almost always this bridges into some people asking for the full range for themselves. This in turn can lead to deeper forms of disclosure -- as long as the emphasis is on receiving for self, not telling others. A group who has developed some durability in this way can then have a "meta-conversation" about the common problem of deficit-based problem-solving and begin to handle the fear together -- a gradual process that can actually bring people together and give a team greater capacity through trust.

    You might be interested in, a free tool I developed to help with this process and perhaps one that might help augment the great stuff you are doing. Anyway, I'd certainly be open to your feedback about it and continuing the dialogue...Best to you.

  2. Hi Nicolas, thx for your article, I just pasted link to it in LinkedIn discussion on "Difficulties with team formation" in Agilia group ( Perhaps you will need to be logged into LinkedIn to see it correctly.

    Kamila Novakova


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