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Change Resistance

Overcoming Resistance to Change in a Lean Company

The term ‘resistance to change’ is commonly used in discussions about Lean. It simply means that people are set in their ways, and often don’t want to modify their routines.

Surprisingly, this change resistance doesn’t just occur when people who like their jobs are asked to make a change. Resistance even comes from people who are chronically upset with their working conditions. For them, the known evil is preferable to the unknown.

For someone to resist a change, there obviously has to be a change. Change comes as the result of the variety of events that occur around people every day. These events can be big or small, good or bad, but they invariably lead to some altered outcome. For example, when the weather changes and it rains (event), people get wet (outcome).

While it is a subtle distinction, it is not really the change itself that people resist, but rather the new outcome that comes from the change. 

Where Change Resistance Happens

Resistance to Change Affects the How You Think Links

Resistance to Change Affects the How You Think Links

The model we at Velaction use to depict change is the “How-You-Think” Links. The steps of this model are:

  1. Event.  Something happens. The weather channel reports that it is going to hit 90 degrees today. Since this step is objective, there is no change resistance associated with it.
  2. Interpretation. An event inherently has no meaning to it. For example, is a 90 degree day good or bad? A business owner might interpret it as good if she sells ice cream. An employee might view it as bad if his boss has decided to leave the air conditioning off to save money. 
  3. The ‘spin’ one puts on the event is his interpretation. This is the step where resistance to change starts. If the interpretation is negative, it plants the seeds of change resistance.

  1. Emotion. After you apply meaning to an event, you have an emotional response to it. Many times this response is virtually unnoticed, but your emotions set your state of mind and affect the decisions you make.
  2. While some emotions are highly visible—red faces, steam coming from one’s ears, smiles—most are hidden from external view. This makes it hard to identify change resistance at this step.

    That hot day makes the boss happy if she is anticipating record profits from ice cream sales. But in the second example, the employee is likely angry about the boss’s lack of compassion for not cranking up the A/C.

  1. Decision. Regardless of the situation, people always have options—although some of them might be unappealing. Unfortunately, individuals often create artificial limits on their choices. They either don’t know a better way, or they let their emotions influence the choices they put on the table.
  2. The business owner has to decide how much ice cream to stock up on—all in all, a rather positive decision to be stuck with. That overheated employee has to make a harder choice. Confront the boss, buy a fan, stew in sweltering misery, or find a new (cooler) job.

  1. Action. This is where the rubber meets the road. Skills, support network, resources, and a host of other things influence how well a person can act on her decision.
  2. This is generally the most outwardly observable step that a person takes. Bosses should realize, though, that even though this is where they observe a person’s change resistance, it is not where that resistance started. Addressing it here is a band-aid approach.

  1. Results. People try to get the best outcomes they can. Unfortunately, not all results are good ones. But if a person pays attention to how he passes through the earlier steps, he can improve the odds of getting what he wants.

Preventing Change Resistance

Fortunately, there is good news about the resistance people exhibit when there is a change.

Neither a company nor an individual wants resistance.

It stresses out employees, and reduces productivity for the company. This means that both sides share a common goal: preventing resistance to change.

So how can leaders get good results instead of resistant employees?

Leaders have the best opportunity in the event link. Since they are the ones pushing the change, they can structure it to match how their employees will interpret it. Done properly, the resulting emotion will be a positive one.

What can leaders do to minimize their employees’ change resistance?

  1. Know their employees. If leaders don’t understand what makes their employees tick, they will have no chance at meeting their employees’ needs. And if those needs are not addressed, employees will interpret the Event in a negative way.
  2. Think about the desired results. Leaders must consider what positive results look like, but they must be realistic. They probably shouldn’t be thinking that Toyota’s culture is attainable on the first go-around.
  3. Instead, leaders should envision the results they can reasonably expect from the change they are making, and think how it will play out in each one of the links. How will employees interpret the change? What will the emotions be? What decisions will employees make?

    Strong leaders will get feedback from trusted employees to make sure they get this step right. Doing this sort of ‘pre-mortem’ on the rollout of any new process will help a leader identify and address areas where the change will drive resistance.

  1. Create a win-win situation. When making a change, leaders should think about how it will be good for their team as well as the company.
  2. I’m not talking about the book answers for why Lean helps employees. I’m talking about matching the changes the leader is making to the specific problems that her team is facing.

    A good place to start is by listening to what the team is complaining about to each other. They tend to be far more open when talking to their coworkers than their bosses.

Driving Positive Change

Positive responses to change doesn’t come by accident. They comes from a well-thought out plan of how people will move through the links in the diagram. Leaders announce far too many changes without considering the path to a good Result.

Using the How-You-Think-Links is not a cure-all for getting good Results. Positive outcomes take a lot of hard work. The links, though, are a good analysis tool for preventing change resistance and clearing obstacles on the path to success. 


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