The pattern is so predictable as to be universal. A leadership team announces to a company that they are going to launch Lean Six Sigma. The next few months are a blur of activity with executives and their direct reports scrambling to conduct an assessment, plan the deployment and determine how to recruit and allocate resources.

After the initial excitement dies away, however, whispers are heard among middle management and rank-and-file employees, and perhaps even on the executive team. These whispers are saying things such as: “I don’t have the time/resources to do this.” “We’re doing fine in my department, so I don’t need to do Lean Six Sigma.” “I’m not going to give up my best people to become Black Belts. I need them for more important work.” and “This is just another fad. I’ll wait it out.”

Sound familiar? It should. Every company runs into resistance of one form or another whenever it adopts a new strategy or launches a new initiative.

The problem is serious. Often, millions of dollars in savings and profits are at stake with Lean Six Sigma initiatives. Vocal or persistent resistance will slow down how quickly a company can achieve those kinds of gains – and, in the worst case, it can derail the initiative entirely. That is why part of every executive’s repertoire needs to be the knowledge, skills and tools to minimize the occurrence and impact of resistance.

Four Strategies for Countering Resistance

The most important thing to know is not to label resistance as impediments or barriers. Cultural resistance is really a form of communication. Actions and words that indicate resistance are exposing people’s concerns. A leader’s role is to understand those concerns and take action to either solve the issue or demonstrate that the concerns are unfounded. Here are four strategies to help do those things.

1. Understand the resistance and its root cause. Think for a moment about reasons why anyone in a company would not embrace Lean Six Sigma. Truth is, if someone thinks engaging in the initiative is in their best interest, they will support it. People who do not are obviously responding to other cues from the work environment that make them think their best option is either to not support the initiative or to actively work against it. The leader’s job is to figure out what is shaping those perceptions.

Here are some of the typical forms of resistance – the reasons why someone would have a reaction that managers would interpret as resistance:

  • “This is just another ‘flavor of the month.'”
  • “I don’t have time…cannot free up resources.”
  • “This does not apply in my part of the business.”
  • “Is this just a way to cut headcount?”
  • “Is this incremental to my existing business plan?”

When considering the root causes behind these symptoms (see the table below), the negative reaction suddenly appears not only understandable, but like a perfectly reasonable path.

The company’s leadership team, therefore, must first talk to people throughout the company, all departments and all levels, and see which complaints or resistance behaviors are most often seen. Then discuss them as a team to identify the likely root cause. The leadership team may also want to do a postmortem on other initiatives in the company: Which ones succeeded, and why? Which did not, and why? That information is essential to help shape the appropriate response.

2. Act and/or communicate to address the root cause. Once the leadership understands the root causes of the resistance in the company, a plan of specific actions is needed to address each cause.

For example, one of the most commonly heard complaints is that people are already overloaded with work. In most cases, that is true. A company cannot expect fast, significant results through Lean Six Sigma if improvement work is loaded onto already overcrowded schedules. Ways to counteract this problem might include:

  • Demonstrate commitment. Dedicate those most responsible for Lean Six Sigma results (such as Black Belts and Champions) to the work full time. That will mean empowering managers to either distribute the original job responsibilities among other individuals and/or hire new people to take on the old work. These actions signal to everyone that the company is serious about achieving the targeted goals for the Lean Six Sigma initiative.
  • Identify and constantly reinforce corporate priorities. It is the role of the company’s leadership to help people allocate their time appropriately. For example, if it is a strategic priority to reduce lead time by 50 percent within the year, then efforts related to any other goal (such as reducing defects) should be put on the shelf if that work conflicts with cycle-time projects. In short, leaders need to learn to say no.
  • Build capacity/manage workloads. Do the people who may have to take on additional work have the training/skills to do that work well? If not, an investment in cross-training may need to be made. Establish a mechanism to provide early alerts if workloads are getting uneven and an individual or workgroup is in danger of falling behind on priority work. Monitor everyone affected by the additional work – including co-workers of team members who are expected to pick up new work.

The table below lists typical forms of resistance, their root causes and proven solutions that are targeted at those root causes.

Common Forms of Resistance and How to Combat Them

Common Complaint

Root Cause

Proven Solution

“This is just another ‘flavor of the month.'” Multiple past initiatives have been launched with high fanfare and little results or staying power Demonstrate leadership belief…
> Select best people as Black Belts and assign them to the most important problems in the business.
> Minimize fanfare (hoopla without substance).
> Integrate into daily operation of the business; a review of Lean Six Sigma efforts should be on every executive team agenda.
“I don’t have time…cannot free up resources.” Too many projects/activities in process > Identify and stop other initiatives and even Lean Six Sigma projects that are either not related to current strategic priorities or that will make only a minor contribution.
“This does not apply in my part of the business.” Misconception about how Lean Six Sigma works; lack of information about how it applies Lean Six Sigma has been proven in all business sectors and applications.
> Have team members from inside business make presentations to co-workers throughout the company.
> Procure case studies from other companies that demonstrate project success in areas relevant to the business.
> Invite outside speakers to make presentations to managers and employees.
Unwillingness to provide “best people” as Black Belts Would rather apply them to their own highest priorities > Involve several layers of managers in identifying the priorities for the Lean Six Sigma efforts. Cascade the decisions throughout the organization.
> Incorporate progress towards these priorities into annual business goals for each manager.
> Drive alignment of priorities through the project selection process.
“The results are not real.” Lack of confidence that the results will materialize > Deploy detailed, conservative “rule book” for tracking project financial results.
“How is this different from past quality/improvement initiatives?” Fatigue from multiple quality initiatives > Explain and demonstrate key differences.
“Is this just a way to cut headcount?” Fear and/or mistrust > Drive a desired mix of projects – x% cost reduction, y% growth, z% capital effectiveness. Communicate honestly about expected impacts. Most companies work hard to avoid job cuts related to Lean Six Sigma. If productivity gains mean fewer workers are needed on a particular process, the companies will either (a) use the capacity to take on additional business, or (b) cross-train employees so they can take on other job responsibilities.
“Is this incremental to my existing business plan?” Don’t want to add to existing workload > Align all Lean Six Sigma work to directly support the existing business plan, rather than developing a set of collateral goals.
“Does management really believe/support it?” Lack of confidence that everyone is on board > Genuine leadership engagement in the process is required – not just talk.

3. Pay attention to the need to continue to act. As any experienced manager knows, resistance does not just disappear one day. Even though one problem may be solved, other conflicts or misunderstandings will inevitably arise that lead to future resistance. Be creative in finding ways to make sure that both managers and employees feel they can safely share their concerns with company leaders. In other words, they will not be subject to reprisals if they speak up. Minimally, company leaders should occasionally “walk the floor” to look middle managers, supervisors and employees in the eye and ask for their reaction to how things are going. They should do the same with any dedicated Lean Six Sigma personnel – ask them direct questions and be sure to follow up.

4. Provide mechanisms to continually engage the broader population in the change. The two most powerful weapons in the leadership team’s arsenal of culture change are 1) involving people directly in the new initiative and 2) creating a cadre of converts able to share their experiences with peers. As a company plans its initiative, therefore, it should build in mechanisms that will expose people to either or both of these weapons. Provide as much Green Belt and Yellow Belt training as possible. All managers should be required to attend a one-day workshop that involves them in process change. Open team membership as much as possible without having unwieldy teams. Team members should be required to make presentations to their work group and management teams.

Key to Unlocking Resistance: Addressing Root Causes

How many times have leaders on all levels thought they had solved a problem only to have it resurface again at a later time or place? Lean Six Sigma teaches that this is common whenever there is a failure to address the root cause of a problem.

The same is true for dealing with cultural resistance. While every company has some people who will resist anything new just because it is new, the vast majority of employees who demonstrate a reluctance to get involved have legitimate concerns. The role of the company’s leadership is to uncover what those concerns are and come up with targeted countermeasures.

Talking the talk is a good beginning because it reinforces what goals are important to management. But, there is no substitute for walking the walk. If the leadership of the company consistently acts in ways that support strategic goals and reinforces the idea that Lean Six Sigma is part of everyone’s job (not instead of or in addition to), most resistance will fade away because the root causes of the concerns will disappear.

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