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The Psychology of Lean (+ 9-Page Lean PDF)

Lean tools are relatively simple to implement. Setting up a management system is significantly more complicated, but it is still not the most challenging part of creating a robust continuous improvement culture.

That title goes to understanding how improvement and change affects people. Lean psychology is hands-down the hardest aspect of becoming an improvement oriented organization.

Change management relies heavily on psychology. Job satisfaction, negotiating, communication, motivating, rewarding, and adjusting undesirable behaviors all require a deep understanding of how people think and feel.

So what is psychology? According to Dictionary.com, it is “the mental make-up or structure of an individual that causes him or her to think or act in the way he or she does.”

Understanding why a person acts in a particular way has an obvious benefit. It prevents leaders from focusing on the behavioral symptoms of deeper problems. It also gives people insight into their own behaviors so they can focus on the source of the problem and not spend their time on band-aids.

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Workplace Behaviors & Psychology in a Lean Environment

What are the first thoughts that pop into your head when I say the word ‘Lean’?

My bet is that it depends on who you are. If you are a manager, a continuous improvement champion, or if you have been doing Lean for a while, you will most likely think of one of its tools: flow, waste reduction, or any of the other ‘hard skills’.

But if you are a frontline employee or professional, you might think about it a little differently. You might immediately consider how Lean affects you, how it changes your job and your workload, and you might even worry about your job security.

The point is that different people have a variety of reactions to Lean. Understanding some basic psychological principles can help explain why people react the way they do, and more importantly, can help them make changes that will make Lean both more effective and more satisfying.

This list below provides an overview of some of these psychological concepts and how they affect workplace behaviors in a Lean company.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

This psychological principle says people’s needs are arranged in a hierarchy. The model is commonly depicted as a pyramid, with the most basic needs on the bottom.

  1. Physiological: Food, water, shelter, etc.
  2. Safety: Freedom from fear of harm.
  3. Social Needs: Being accepted as part of a team.
  4. Esteem: External affirmation.
  5. Self-actualization: Internal motivation.

Maslow says it is hard to address a higher level need when a lower order need is unmet. For example, an employee is unlikely to worry about being a part of a team (social need) when he is worried about how he would put food on the table if he was laid off (physiological need).

An effective Lean culture requires a high degree of internal motivation. And that doesn’t happen when people are scared of losing their jobs or getting in trouble for making mistakes.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

This psychological test presumes that every person has four basic components to his or her personality:

  1. Favorite World: Extrovert or Introvert
  2. Information: Sensing or Intuition
  3. Decisions: Thinking or Feeling
  4. Structure: Judging or Perceiving.

These combine to make sixteen distinct personality types (ENTJ, for example) that show a person’s predisposition to act in a certain way.

Doing something contrary to a personality type is not impossible; it just takes more energy than doing what comes naturally. An introvert, for example, might be uncomfortable participating in a kaizen’s report out.

In Lean settings, managers can look for indicators of a person’s personality type, and modify expectations and assign roles accordingly.

Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are the way people cope with the world around them without throwing their value system out of whack.

A few of the defense mechanisms most commonly associated with Lean workplace behaviors are:

  1. Denial: A person may exhibit denial by refusing to acknowledge the need for change. Obviously, it is hard for a team member to commit to Lean when she thinks it is unnecessary.
  2. Avoidance: A person showing avoidance will not volunteer for Lean projects, and will hunker down or walk away when the topic of conversation turns to Lean.
  3. Projection: Projection occurs when a person ascribes his own unacceptable feelings or behaviors onto someone else. The most common application in Lean is when a resistant, uncooperative person views his manager as being close-minded (or vice versa—a stubborn manager sees an employee as being resistant).
  4. Humor: Some people simply try to laugh it off or make sarcastic jokes when the feeling of change is overwhelming. A little is OK, but too much is disruptive and a warning sign that the person is struggling with the changes.

Defense mechanisms help a person in the short term by reducing discomfort with change, but the longer an employee goes without adapting, the further he falls behind as the organization forges ahead.

Managers should watch for workplace behaviors that seem contrary to an expected response. An employee accusing a manager of being grumpy when she (the boss) is feeling happy, or a person seeming blind to a steady drop in sales are big red flags.

Social Loafing

Some people display a characteristic in which they don’t work as hard on a team as they do in individual settings. The phenomenon is commonly related to the perception that they are not an important part of the team, or that their contributions are not going to be taken seriously. Whatever the reason, it results in wasted improvement resources.

Leaders should combat this by giving specific tasks to people rather than assigning work to a group. Those explicit assignments help keep people focused and motivated.

Cognitive Dissonance

People are complicated and can often hold conflicting beliefs. As an example, consider a large SUV. A parent may like the safety and security the large vehicle provides to their children. On the other hand, the same person may be an environmentalist, and believe that the SUV is a poor choice due to its high carbon footprint. If the parent gets the SUV, he or she is violating one belief, the one that says the environment must be protected. If he doesn’t, he may feel guilty about not keeping his children as safe as possible.

That is the problem with cognitive dissonance. It puts the brain in a precarious position of having to choose between competing needs. As a result, it must change something or be in a constant stated of discomfort.

Consider a workplace example. A person may think that it is important to work hard and be a team player, but may also think that family is important and missing events is unacceptable. What happens to that person when she is on a kaizen team that runs late—right into her son’s baseball game? Obviously, her brain isn’t going to be pleased.

The best option is to remove the conflict. Perhaps the kaizen can be rescheduled, or she plans participation around her life’s activities. Absent that option, the brain has to do something. The most common approach is to reach for defense mechanisms. The woman in this situation may rationalize her departure by convincing herself that there are enough people on the team that she won’t be missed, or that she worked through lunch the last three days.

The continuous improvement takeaway is twofold. Individuals can learn to recognize how they react when their belief system is tested, and can adjust the negative side effects of their behaviors.

Leaders can look for the tells when people are struggling with cognitive dissonance. From the outside, managing this conflict looks illogical and out of character. Focusing on that behavioral part of the situation can compound the problem. Addressing the issue, namely the conflict, directly is typically a more effective approach. 

  • Most people don’t like being analyzed. Don’t overstep your knowledge of psychology.
  • Psychology is an imprecise science. Use your observations and understanding of human behavior as one piece of evidence rather than as a definitive call for action.
  • Don’t take chances. Get help using the more complicated tools listed above. For example, testing for Myers-Briggs type takes training and an understanding of how to apply the results. When dealing with relationships and the human brain, mistakes are hard to overcome. 

Understanding basic psychology doesn’t just help leaders. It also helps team members understand each other a bit better. And it helps them look more deeply into the mirror as well.

One of the biggest factors that affect job satisfaction is how people get along with their coworkers. It makes sense. When you spend 40-50 hours a week with a person, the relationship makes a mark. If that time is enjoyable, the positive feelings overflow into home life. The opposite is also true. Leave the office with bad feelings, and it is hard to immediately reset.

What a solid understanding of psychology does for you is helps you recognize and manage potentially harmful behaviors. When a coworker is struggling with something, they can often come across as abrasive. Defense mechanisms, particularly avoidance, denial, and projection, frequently put people at odds with each other. Learning to recognize these as symptoms of deeper issues goes a long way toward smoothing out problems.

Let’s face it. Psychology has never had a prominent role at the frontline of companies. It’s hard to picture a burly steel worker listening to his foreman talk to him about his avoidance issues.

But that foreman is using psychology with that worker, whether he recognizes it or not. Leaders use psychology intuitively when trying to motivate employees, or when they try to resolve disputes between coworkers.

The point is that the field of psychology, despite its lukewarm reception on the shop floor, is critical to your Lean success. After all, we commonly hear that people are a company’s most important asset.

Doesn’t it follow that leaders should try to get a better understanding of what is important to employees and what is motivating them to act the way they do? Knowing that information goes a long way towards creating a win-win environment where satisfied employees drive up profit.

  • Psychology is like a maintenance program for people, a company’s most important asset.
  • While psychoanalysis should be left to the experts, a basic understanding of psychology goes a long way towards explaining why people act the way they do.
  • Many undesired behaviors are the result of some other, more significant problem.

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