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Why Workers Resist Lean Culture

Why do workers resist lean culture? Lean methodology expert Karen Wilhelm explains why employees are often suspicious of lean, and how to get them on board.

Karen Wilhelm

In this podcast, Ms. Wilhelm talks about a human behavior study done years ago by anthropologists led by Dr. Margaret Mead, and how this old study fit into Lean methodology at a business.

Karen is a lifelong learner who specializes in Lean thinking. She has worked over 20 years in the manufacturing and publishing field. In addition to publishing the Lean Reflections blog, she also writes for several manufacturing related publications and co-authors white papers.

Karen also discusses how a traditional, skeptical business in Detroit, DTE Energy, implemented Lean. Karen’s blog, called “Lean Reflections” is at


Brandon Nys: Welcome to Safety Experts Talk. Take a look at our website at for related links in the transcript of this podcast.

Introduction music

Antonio Ferraro: Hello everyone. This is Antonio. On our episode today is our guest, Karen Wilhelm. Karen is a lifelong learner who specializes in Lean thinking, and seeks out stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. She has over 20 years of experience in the manufacturing and publishing field. In addition to publishing the Lean Reflections blog, she also writes for several manufacturing related publications and co-authors white papers. Hello, Karen. Thanks for coming on the program with us. How are you doing today?

Karen Wilhelm: Good, good. Thanks for having me on.

Antonio: It’s a pleasure to have you on the podcast today. We’d like to hear your advice on what to look for when hiring a Lean leader or expert. But first, today, I wanted to focus on the Lean culture and discuss the Psychological Principles of Change and what the Lean culture means. Can you enlighten us?

Karen: Ok. To go back a little bit in time, in the late ‘40s early ‘50s, the United Nations was trying to change cultures and send experts into areas that were very disadvantaged and didn’t have modern water systems or agriculture. And they were bringing something really wonderful, they thought. But, so often these projects would just change. People would go back to their old ways or they wouldn’t accept them that all.

Antonio: Which is a pretty common problem, today as well.

Karen: It is, yes. And it’s perplexing. And a lot of reasons are posed, and one of them is “Well, the culture just won’t accept it.” And I’ve always been a little dissatisfied with the definitions of culture that come out of the Lean community. And I found in this old book, on this study done by a group of anthropologists led by Dr. Margaret Mead, who’s one of the founders of anthropology, and they studied many of these projects in many cultures and then put their ideas together.

So this is coming from a completely different perspective. Most of the time we don’t have anything to do with anthropologists or psychologists when we’re working with people in making change in Lean, so it opened up a lot of ideas for me that I shared on my blog.

Antonio: And how do people find your blog, Karen?

Karen: The blog is called “Lean Reflections” and it is at

Antonio: Ok. Thanks. So, how did these scientists see change happen?

Karen: Ok, so, you know, one thing they found, and we don’t always realize, is that a change happens when each person affected by the change makes a decision. So, we’re not really changing our culture, we’re asking people to change their thinking. And that’s not always easy and the reason sometimes boils down to some psychological principles that might help us in making the project work if we work more conscious of them.

And, I have to say, I’ve been as ignorant as anybody else when looking at change and why I want to persuade people that Lean is really important and they ought to pay attention to me because it’s so wonderful.

Antonio: Right. So, what does that show us, Karen?

Karen: Ah, so, that just demonstrates that your own psychology matters. If I’m the expert, or you’re the expert, we just have a psychology that this is so wonderful that we’re just going to explain it. And we’re just going to tell people how it’s going to help them. Then they’re going to jump up and down to be so happy. So it’s your psychology that may be blinding you to things that are going to stand in the way of your project working.

Antonio: Which is often the case, because many times, when somebody gets presented with a change, they often have a bad attitude towards it.

Karen: Right.

Antonio: They want to do it their own way. They don’t want to do it somebody else’s way.

Karen: Right. And, when you get down to it, why should they listen to you? It’s, you know, from their perspective, you’re just somebody coming in telling them something that they probably heard before and probably hasn’t worked very well.

Antonio: I’ve seen that happen.

Karen: Right.

Antonio: Now, let’s march on to the next point in seeing change happen.

Karen: Another thing that they emphasized was that culture is based on a set of beliefs that are shared by a group of people. And these beliefs are actually what’s causing the behavior. Its people are doing things, and not because they’re stupid, but because it’s based on some belief that we might not understand. And, as you said, it might be a belief that “if I do it this way it’s always worked, so I believe that this is how I’m going to do it.”

So one thing that we need to do, and this is the third point: take time to see the change from their point of view. As irrational as we might think it is, we really need to stand in the shoes of each of these people and see what it looks like, see what it does to them, see what they have to change in their thinking, and show some respect for that.

Antonio: Yes, I’ve seen this many times, especially in the manufacturing world. Management stands there. And they come in, and they implement a change. And they haven’t even done the job that the workers do everyday.

Karen: Absolutely. And that’s one of the things that can make Kaizen successful. It’s not when you tell people to go do some Kaizens. It’s when, if you’re the leader, you go down and you work with them and you are part of the process. And that’s a leadership act thing that can be very effective.

Antonio: Great.

Karen: The fourth one is one that they found happened in their projects, and I think sometimes we find that we’ve made this mistake as well. And that is to encounter a single problem, and then try to give people a huge, system-wide plan so that it’s going to solve that problem and every one else. And that plan may be a very good, and that may be very true, but it gives people more than they can digest.

And so, this is something to really guard against. And, if we’re engineers, you know, we just love those big system-wide things that are going to make everything better. So, it’s very hard to do, but it’s looking at the psychology of the people that are going to be affected by this change.

Antonio: OK. Let’s move on to number five.

Karen: Um, you actually have to take into account that the change you’re making in the way somebody works is creating a certain amount of instability. They were coming in with a very predictable day. And their work, as many problems as there are, the problems are very predictable. You get in a comfort zone with that.

When somebody comes in and wants to make you move over to a different part of the plant, or do more things than you were doing, it is an instability. Sometimes it’s a good feeling of instability, but remember: stand back and get to understand this person and see how they feel affected by the change.

Antonio: That’s good advice.

Karen: And another example would be sometimes there’s a change to people’s hours, or when work starts. Now you’ve upset all of their childcare arrangements, and their commute to work and you’ve done all kinds of things that you may not have thought about affecting their life.

Antonio: Alright, Karen. There are more reasons that change is difficult. What is #6?

Karen: You’re introducing a lot of new practices that conflict with the old practices. By your attitude, or maybe by the skills required by the new practices, some of the people find that their self-concept is really affected. A foreman may feel like “I know everything about everything.” Now, all of a sudden, you’re coming in saying “Well, you don’t know everything about everything.”

Prestige is affected. Their feeling that “they are respected because they know everything” is affected. So, you may be doing a certain amount of damage that you’re not realizing that you do.

Antonio: Ok. And there is one more point in the Psychological Principles of Change. What is #7.

Karen: Uh, and then, at its worst, when these changes are happening, instability is being created in their lives. Some people are very vulnerable and you may cause damage to their mental health. You could find somebody experiencing depression that has been caused by all this commotion. Or anxiety.

We really need an awareness of what’s going on with people, and have some plan for help.

Antonio: Good. Those seven “Psychological Principles of Change” are on Karen’s blog, Lean Reflections, right?

Karen: Yes,

Antonio: OK, let’s change gears. You have a great history with Lean culture, even helping set the standards for Lean certification. Please tell us about that.

Karen: A big culture shock happened to me in the early 2000s. I had an opportunity to work with The Society of Manufacturing Engineers, and the development of the Lean certification that’s now available through SME, or AME or the Shingo Prize organization. It was a huge project. It was driven by people in the industry who had great experiences of doing Lean. They had many accomplishments.

So there is this big project to accomplish by conference call, by emails and I was just amazed at the respectful openness that they demonstrated in every exchange that they had with us and with each other. They knew more than us. They knew how they wanted things to be, but they were consistently respectful of things that went wrong, or that weren’t understood or disagreements among themselves. So this was really kind of different for me.

Antonio: It sounds like a great atmosphere.

Karen: Then they decided to conduct a three-day blitz. They had people come in to Dearborn, near Detroit, from all over the country. From Boeing and GM and Ford and Toyota—many of these people had come out of Toyota. So you have this collection of people who’ve never actually seen each other before. Ah, nearly a hundred of them. And we’re going to help
them with this.

And, within one morning, they had conducted simulations for the whole group. They needed to get people on the same page, and how they are going to think about Lean. This provoked discussion. They needed to come to some agreement on the structure for this certification. So they had a lot of alternatives.

They needed to do some process maps of how it would work, and then criticize and evaluate those process maps among themselves. What questions will be on examinations. So there was this tremendous amount of things going on, and it was organized, you know, almost spontaneously.

There were so many good feelings there. People were not arguing, they were not having disagreements with anger. Huge amounts of respect, and exchange, and thanks, and appreciation of each other.

Antonio: Due to Lean, no doubt.

Karen: It has everything to do with experience with Lean. Because they were in companies where Lean culture failed to take root. And they were in companies where Lean culture had done very well.

One example was many of them, coming from GM, had spent a lot of time at NUMMI. And, if you remember, that was that joint venture in California between Toyota and GM. They actually took on GM’s worst-performing plant and, of course, GM thought that was because these people were very negative and they would never do anything for the favor of the company.

And it really didn’t take a long time and it became the best performing plant. This is all because of Toyota’s approach to how to make change and some of their principles, like respect for people.

So these people from GM, who’d seen it fail to thrive in the rest of GM, had some pretty interesting perspectives to add to the people who’d found things successful.

Antonio: Do you think Lean culture basically starts at the top?

Karen: Right

Antonio: Usually the managers are the ones that set the tone for Lean culture, right?

Karen: Well, yes and, you know, we just discussed an example of the upper management of GM taking this “ok, you do it” attitude. “We’ll send some experts in.” They weren’t involved at all.

Toyota’s way of doing things was quite different. They were sending their managers to Japan for three weeks to educate them, which is what they do. They were mentoring them. The managers had coaches from Toyota. They knew exactly what Lean culture was. They knew what Toyota culture was. And they knew how to help people help each other.

Antonio: What about a company that’s on a budget, and they can’t afford to send their managers out for training in Lean?

Karen: Ah, you know, that’s really the biggest problem. It’s hard to persuade “up”. Sometimes, I think, if you say “Well, let’s look at the numbers if we don’t spend the money on training. What what are we going to get for our dollars?” And money talks.

But, I had an experience that I wrote about in AME’s magazine with DTE Energy, which is in the Detroit area and some others. It’s our electric and gas utility. I mean, it’s a huge organization. It’s an old organization. It’s an organization that had been trying to put Lean in place for decades. And it was struggling.

But, eventually one of the Lean champions got to the point where they pushed two or three of the top people to go to a five day training event held by Autoliv, which, in the auto industry, is a supplier that has a very strong Lean culture. They pushed these guys to go, and finally they said “All right, we’ll go.” And I talked to some of them, these were at VP level, and they said they came back on fire.

Antonio: That’s great.

Karen: Their experience was so powerful, having been the leaders going through it, working alongside line workers to do change and improvement events, that they were just transformed.

So, I don’t know how you make that push. I don’t know if you blackmail people, or have their wives and husbands push them into going. But experiencing is everything.

Antonio: That’s a great example of success, Karen. And, like you said, money talks, but you just have to invest in it. In the long run you’ll get your return on your investment.

Karen: Right. Well, that’s also why the pilot approach can work. Because, if you say “Alright, we’re going to take this group of processes over here making this one product,” if you say “alright, we’’ll train those people.” We’re not going to have you train everybody. But, you know, “Let’s try it.”

And that’s often very effective way of showing people that making the change going probably save you enough money to pay for all the training that you’re having to bring in.

Antonio: What kind of leadership traits, then, should a company look for in a person to successfully oversee some Lean projects?

Karen: Well, you know, right there, that could be the sign of the problem. Because if the company says, you know, “Oh, we need to be more Lean” or “We need to make these improvements, so we’ve got to hire an expert.” In nine times out of ten, that’s what the problem is. Because you can’t import some person to make this change.

You have to be the change.

You can bring in a coach for yourself. You could bring somebody to work with you. You can bring in somebody to lead you through the process of leading Lean. But, just going and saying “Alright, here’s a list of the things that we want in a person, that’s number one.

Antonio: Number one of what NOT to do.

Karen: Right. But, if you have a lean culture, and you say “Alright, we need to bring in a little more expertise,” you could go to the Toyota production system, or the Autoliv production system, or the Ford production system and say “Alright, what are the elements?”

Respect for people. Appreciation of continuous improvement. A never-ending belief that things can be done for the better. That people need to have opportunities to learn and that people need to be supported in their change.

If somebody comes in, and they’re talking Lean culture, and you can look at their experience, and say “What have you done?” and see Lean cultures that they’ve supported, I think, then, you’re going to have a more successful import of the kind of person that you need.

Antonio: When hiring, do certifications matter? Do they need to be a black belt in Lean?

Karen: Um, you know, it all depends. I mean, there are very worthless green belt and black belts and yellow belt programs. So, somebody coming in with a piece of paper may not mean anything. I think you have to look at “Well, what is certification?” You know, “What does an ASQ certification require of people? Is that what we need? What does the SME, AME and Shingo require of people and is that what we need?”

So, it can mean something, but it doesn’t mean everything. It’s “What do you do?” not “What do you say you do?”

Antonio: Ok. This was a lot of great information you provided, Karen. You’re a true Lean culture inspiration. Our listeners will want to check out Karen Wilhelm’s blog, called “Lean Reflections”, and it’s at I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to be with us today.

Karen: Well, thank you for inviting me Tony, and I’m going to spend some time after this call getting in and looking your blog, and I’ll make the comment or two.

Antonio: I appreciate it, Karen. Well, everyone, it’s that time where I have to say goodbye. This is Antonio Ferraro. I want to thank all of you for listening in.

(Outro Music with Voiceover)

Brandon: Thank you for joining us on Safety Experts Talk. If you have suggestions for future podcasts, send them to For more safety experts talking about safety news, OSHA regulations, PPE, lean, 5S, or Continuous Improvement, go to


Karen Wilhelm photo © ℗ 2015 Karen Wilhelm / Lean Reflections; workers image © ℗ 2015 Morguefile © ℗ 2008 Kevin Rosseel

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