within ourselves culture change

The Fault Lies Not in the Stars, but Within Ourselves

I hear all too often from professionals in Continuous Improvement how “Senior Leadership does not give me the support I need”.  Some go further by making the claim that “Senior Leadership just doesn’t understand”.  And some go further still and make the suggesting there is a conscious, if not curious, effort by senior leaders to sabotage the Continuous Improvement programs.

In the most extreme circumstances, some (mostly consultants) go as far as to position themselves, their profession, and their efforts as some sort of higher cause, almost as a religion, and look down upon the non-believers with a level of contempt.  Somehow believing they are the enlightened elite and the people running the company are just a bunch of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.

They talk at people (not talk with) with a level of arrogance – complete with Bernie Sanders-esque finger wagging.  And, of course, the blame for any failures never falls upon them.


I recently engaged in a discussion on LinkedIn with a fairly well-known expert on Lean which rapidly escalated into a debate.  I would share it, but the person who posted it deleted the thread.  When I asked why he did that, he responded; “It’s my thread and I can do what I want.”  That told me everything I needed to know about the gentleman.

His position was that senior leadership – specifically CEO’s – were making a conscious effort to undermine and sabotage continuous improvement efforts and were the root cause of all continuous improvement failures.  Besides being a rather extreme position, I also knew from experience it was not true.  When pressed, he offered that his “extensive research on the subject” had conclusively demonstrated that senior leadership was to blame.  When I asked where I could find his research and what constituted failure, he told me to “Read the Wall Street Journal.”

I do read the WSJ.  This guy was just a stuffed shirt blowing smoke.

And, unfortunately, there are many like him.  Too many.

Reading his blog was like reading the “Communist Manifesto” of Lean, with him as Karl Marx.  Except the villains are not the bourgeoisie, they are the senior leadership (specifically, the CEO); and the down-trodden proletariat are the poor hapless schmucks in continuous improvement.

I just don’t buy it.

I don’t buy that CEO’s are like kids with magnifying glasses who get great pleasure from focusing the sun’s rays on the ants that are the people working for them – especially those in continuous improvement.

And I don’t buy that the folks in continuous improvement are “The Avengers” and are the only ones upon who companies can pin their hopes to save them (and us) from peril and certain doom.

Don’t be that guy.

It’s not you.

The first thing everyone who works at a company must realize is that there are only so many resources (attention, time, and money) to go around – and these resources will be first allocated according to what the senior leadership feel are the highest priorities.

Certainly, you can lobby senior leadership for support of the value propositions you offer and that can be realized by continuous improvement.  If and when you do get this chance to lobby, make sure the conversation is about how you and your efforts can accelerate the achievement of the corporate vision – and know what that is before you have the conversations.  Afterwards, if you, your efforts, and what you can deliver are not included in the highest priorities, you need to learn to deal with it.

If you made your case elegantly (that is simple to understand) and compelling (demonstrated the benefit) and still didn’t get the support you needed, it wasn’t about you – it’s just business.  There were just other priorities that needed the resources ahead of you.

But remember, priorities shift over time.  Some are accomplished.  Sometimes business factors change the prioritization.  Just wait for your time, sharpen your skills and capability, and be ready.  And if you don’t want to wait, leave.

Okay… Maybe it really is you.

On the other hand, there is also the distinct possibility that it really is you.  Perhaps senior leadership believes you are promising to deliver something they don’t need, or even want.  Or maybe the amount of investment (inputs) and the expected return (outputs) are not great enough to have your efforts become prioritized.

Remember; “If you have proposed a solution I can’t afford, you have not solved my problem.”

Or maybe you are not listening.  Just because you have been a continuous improvement professional for decades does not mean you know everything and cannot be challenged.  When you are, do you slow down and take the time to really listen?  Maybe you are projecting a level of arrogance that is alienating those you need as allies.  Worse, maybe senior leadership just doesn’t believe you are capable of delivering on the promises you are making.  It’s possible.

If you feel you are not getting the time, attention, and respect you need (deserve?) while other do – and this situation appears chronic – perhaps it is you.  If you are feeling singled-out, that your colleagues and peers are getting the time and support of senior leadership while you wait in the hall with hat in hand – well, here’s your sign.  It’s probably time to update your LinkedIn profile.

state of readiness

Where your company is in the journey matters.

As Yogi Berra famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

In this case, the “fork” is whether a culture of continuous improvement already exists in a company and has become part of its DNA – or not.  It is important to understand this because it will go directly to setting expectations and whether there will be disappointment – or not.

As an illustration of these dynamics and we examine the graphic below, “Culture Change and Sustainability”, we can see (and it can be reasoned), that a company with a culture of continuous improvement – a culture for change – already embedded in the company’s DNA, requires little investment – just enough to maintain.  This comes mostly in the form of indoctrinating new employees and supporting existing efforts.

within ourselves culture change

But if the company is in the earlier stages of continuous improvement – it’s not part of the company culture and embedded in the company’s DNA – building a culture of continuous improvement is not a priority.  After all, you don’t miss what you don’t have and changing a culture requires a lot of investment, time, and heavy lifting.  The sole exception to this is if there is a change in the senior leadership and they come in stating it’s a priority – then it probably is.

Here, it is up to the continuous improvement professional to be on top of their game – especially when it comes to understanding what’s important and what’s not important – and this needs to be from the perspective of the company, not of the continuous improvement professional.

If you are launching (or re-launching) a program, it will take a lot of effort just to determine what success looks like.  You will need to understand what the corporate vision might be in as granular a detail as is possible (so efforts can become aligned and prioritized).  Then identify the major pain points, centers of gravity, and muscle movements.  You will also need to determine what capacities and capabilities are required for success; what exists, what doesn’t exist, and where and when you will need them.

In essence, you are architecting your program.

Once that is all understood, then the process of making the dream a reality starts.  You must be aware that the launch of a program to create a culture of change is much like the launch of a rocket.  The beginning is going to be very violent and rough with the consumption of a lot of fuel (money) just to get the thing moving.  Eventually (unless the rocket/program explodes), the journey becomes much smoother as the program gains speed and momentum and breaks free of gravity.

Above all, you need to remember it’s about the people.

Whether it’s Lean, or Six Sigma, or Theory of Constraints, or any of the rest of the ingredients in the Witches’ Brew of management methodologies and tools; you have to remember, these are just “things”, just inputs.  They are not SKU’s you can buy off the shelf and plug into your business.  They are inert and will not make a company any better in and of themselves.

Rather, they are philosophies that have to be accepted by the people before change within them (and subsequently, your company) can begin.  They have to be adopted and adapted – personalized – to make them their own.  And they must hone their skills in these new tools to become increasingly proficient in their application.

After all, a tool is only as good and effective as the person wielding it.

About the author

Joseph F. Paris, Jr.
Joseph F. Paris, Jr.

Paris is the Founder and Chairman of the XONITEK Group of Companies; an international management consultancy firm specializing in all disciplines related to Operational Excellence, the continuous and deliberate improvement of company performance AND the circumstances of those who work there – to pursue “Operational Excellence by Design” and not by coincidence.

He is also the Founder of the Operational Excellence Society, with hundreds of members and several Chapters located around the world, as well as the Owner of the Operational Excellence Group on Linked-In, with over 60,000 members. Connect with him on LinkedIn or find out more about him here: www.JosephParis.me/card

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