Your shop’s lean manufacturing effort and ability to modernize depends on it…

Everyone resists change to some degree, but some are more stubborn than others. That creates a problem that can’t be ignored especially as a manufacturing company attempts to modernize and adapt to lean manufacturing. You have been on your lean manufacturing journey for some time now. You have demonstrated results, gotten employees’ attention, and have shown customers your company can be reliable. Sounds like this is the way to go. All is well—except for one thing. You have a problem with Johnny, a longtime employee true to the company and respected, maybe even revered, by the workforce. But he just does not seem to be supportive of your company’s lean initiative. Even worse, Johnny is beginning to negatively influence some employees. You are concerned that Johnny might undermine the positive changes that are taking the company in a new direction. What do you do?

Ways Johnny Might Resist


You’ve moved away from the traditional ways of manufacturing, with lots of inventory, a focus on efficiency, keeping the machines running, and a top-down tell-the-people-what-to-do management style. You now have a more contemporary way of running the business that focuses on throughput, maintaining high velocity, and involving the workforce in problem-solving. Many people’s jobs have changed, and that’s uncomfortable for those who were satisfied with the status quo. This can happen with people at any level, from the top floor to the shop traditional ways of manufacturing,floor.

Let’s focus on Johnny, a high-level manager. Many employees look up to Johnny because of his long-term tenure, deep knowledge of the business, and “being a great guy.” Johnny has been skeptical of this lean thing from the beginning. He is rarely overt in his resistance. Rather, his resistance seems to be quiet, behind the scenes, and very low-key. But your employees are noticing.

One form of resistance is the negative backbiting, a side comment here or a snide remark there. No long diatribes—just comments that get people’s attention. Johnny says the right things when the boss or other key players are around, but back-peddles when they’re not around.

This will never work. I don’t understand what they think they are doing. Keep your head down until it passes. These and other comments can really bust momentum, especially when they come from a widely respected employee like Johnny. Sometimes Johnny just hunkers down and does business as usual. The problem is that the decisions he makes or the directions he provides are inconsistent with the direction the leadership has set for the company. As a result, employees take actions that don’t support the lean journey. They fail to reduce batch sizes; keep a non-bottleneck operation running when the bottleneck operation should be running; accept the status quo with suppliers instead of working with them to perform in a way that’s consistent with your company’s direction.

Don’t get me wrong. Johnny is not a bad guy. He’s just not with the program and is showing no signs of intending to get with the program. What do you do to get Johnny aboard the lean train?

Ways to Overcome Resistance

One of the most important tenets of a lean organization is respect for people. You understand what that means, but you still struggle when dealing with Johnny. Although there are no cookie-cutter solutions, here are a few ways to deal with Johnny in a respectful manner.

First, spend the time necessary to help Johnny understand what lean is and how it helps manufacturing organizations be successful. manufacturingEducation and training provide this baseline. Make sure Johnny participates in internal training, and don’t allow the “I’m too busy to sit in that training” excuse. Johnny needs to know this is a priority both for his development and for the company’s deployment. Some of the education focuses on leaders only, while other training will be cross-functional and cross-level. Johnny needs to be active in both. Johnny has questions and concerns, but he often has a hard time opening up in front of a group. Here’s where one-on-one coaching can help. The coach could be his boss, a peer who gets it, your company trainer, or even someone from outside the company. This person listens to Johnny’s concerns about this “lean thing.” The coach tries to understand the root causes or underlying issues holding Johnny back and uses examples relevant to Johnny’s situation that can help him breakthrough.

Let’s assume you are not quite there yet with Johnny. What do you do next? One technique might be to get him some outside exposure so he can see lean in action. Send Johnny to a conference where he can attend education sessions, hear from industry peers, mingle with people from other companies who are on their own lean journeys, and go on a plant tour that is part of the conference. The FABTECH® annual exposition and conference fits this bill, as does the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association Annual Meeting. And there are lots of other regional and national conferences that provide exciting and compelling opportunities to learn.

Another way to learn is through deep immersion. Send Johnny on a lean study trip. It might be a weeklong trip to visit multiple companies to see lean in action and interact with the host’s management team. These trips usually are open to the public, so you can expect a variety of participating companies. The debriefs following each plant visit are essential. You can choose a domestic study trip or an international study trip. To make the deep immersion most valuable, go along with Johnny so you can do some one-on-one coaching.

Finally, you might need to have a career development discussion. Help Johnny understand that his participation in the lean journey is not negotiable. Let him know the company is going in this direction and that Johnny cannot be a constraint to progress. Provide him with specific examples of behaviors that are inconsistent with what you expect. Help him create a personal plan to become a lean team player and leader. This will be a frank and, most likely, uncomfortable discussion. But at this point, it is a necessary discussion both for Johnny and the company.

About Respect

I’ve described Johnny as being part of the management team, but he could just as easily be a department manager, production supervisor, or a highly skilled welder. He could be anyone in your company. It really makes no difference. Regardless, you’ve pursued various ways to get Johnny aboard the lean train. But what if after all this work, focus, coaching, and training, Johnny just refuses to get on board? You have been patient and respectful up to this point. But he still is exhibiting those negative behaviors that others in the company are picking upon.

If Johnny is in a position where he exerts either formal or informal influence on the company, then you have a quandary. Since you are serious about the “respect for people” tenet on the lean journey, you are faced with a decision about how to carry it out.manufacturing

On the one hand, you could make the case that to be respectful of Johnny, you have to keep trying to bring him along. On the other hand, you can make the case that to be respectful to others in the company, you need to deal with the Johnny situation to help preserve the paychecks all those families are depending on—especially if Johnny is slowing momentum and putting the company’s performance at risk.

At some point Johnny becomes a personnel issue. If Johnny sees that you are really serious about this lean thing, he might just think that this isn’t what he signed up for and leave the company. Alternatively, he might continue to be the constraining factor and just go along for the ride. In this case, you might need to terminate Johnny. This is difficult but sometimes necessary. And, of course, termination is a last resort.

Does Johnny work at your company? If so, are you doing everything you can to help Johnny get on board? Are you willing to invest in the training, lean study trips, or whatever else to develop Johnny? Finally, are you willing to take the difficult actions necessary if Johnny just will not climb aboard the lean train?

Getting Johnny on the train, or dealing with him when he won’t, is one of the most difficult issues you will have to address as you continue your lean journey. The best solution is to be respectful and develop Johnny so that he willingly gets on board. But when all else fails, you need to deal with the problem and respect the efforts of everyone else. You have to take action with Johnny so that everyone else can thrive.