The next time someone approaches you and suggests it is time to change, check your heartbeat. The simple mention of the word “change,” regardless of what follows, seems to evoke a reaction in each of us. Heart rates increase, breathing becomes faster and shallower, adrenaline starts pumping, and we get ready to fight or flee. The words following “change” could be something benign—such as, yesterday’s paper to today’s paper in the reception area—or significant—such as, our basic business model. That simple word “change” affects us and colors everything that follows.
We have all perpetuated the story that lawyers are more change resistant than others. It makes sense, after all. Lawyers are trained to live in the past. Ask us a question and we want to dive into the books to find what the law says. What has happened in the past sets the guardrails for what we can do in the future. If the guardrails are missing in a few places, then we want to stay as close to the center of the road as possible for fear of transgressing some as yet undrawn line.
This belief that we are special, augmented with an extra dollop of change resistance, allows us to shut down attempts at change by merely pointing out who we are. We are lawyers, we recite, who are conservative by nature, trained to feed off precedent, and we are told by the more conservative members of our tribe that we should not take it upon ourselves to carve new areas of law (unless we sit in a legislative body).
The thing is, as they say, we just aren’t that special. Perhaps we do have a bit more change resistance than the average person, but change resistance is within all of us and it comes out whenever any of us (even the most change-loving) hear that trigger word. The key is in what happens next.
Lean and Change Resistance
Whenever we introduce Lean into a new environment, whether an industry, an organization, or even a department, change resistance appears. Since Lean started in manufacturing, most people assume it was met with mild to no resistance since it was a manufacturing thing. To the contrary, from veterans to newbies, manufacturers fought the ideas brought by Lean. Today, that resistance still appears whenever Lean is brought into a new setting. More significantly, even when Lean has been in the setting for a long time, perhaps years, we still see active and passive resistance.
Move outside of manufacturing, and you continue to hear resistance to the changes Lean brings. Of course, the starting point is always the “we don’t make toasters” argument. Lean may be fine for manufacturing, but once you enter services the whole ball game changes. People are not machines so expecting them to act like and be measured like machines just won’t work (this sentiment tells a lot about the misconceptions of Lean, but I’ll hold off on that thought for a moment).
If we really want to hear the change-resistance arguments flow, we can move to professional services. Providing professional services is something that comes from the brain, not the hands, so trying to standardize how we think and have us respond to a takt time makes no sense. Clearly Lean is out of its element when it comes to Law, Medicine, and any other of the professions aimed at helping people.
Having heard resistance from people at all levels, in all industries, doing all manner of jobs, one could start thinking that the problem is Lean. Perhaps Lean just doesn’t work anywhere. But then, of course, there are the thousands of companies employing millions of people who have successfully introduced Lean and made a go of it with outstanding success. How do we dismiss all of them to decide that Lean doesn’t work? Perhaps we need another theory, and that theory is where Lean practitioners went for guidance on how to overcome change resistance.
If everyone initially opposes Lean, then the challenge may not be Lean, it may be how people respond to change. In fact, we can see that Lean is not singled out for change resistance, any form of change meets a somewhat hostile reception. It seems that Lean is not the trigger, change is the trigger, and that gives us a clue. If we can determine how to address change resistance, then it should work for Lean as well as other change ideas.
Change is change, so it doesn’t help to try and disguise change by saying you are keeping things the same. I remember my first exposure to civil law when I was a junior lawyer. Throughout law school, I had heard professors say, “of course, this is the common law everywhere in the United States except Louisiana, where they follow a hybrid of common law and civil law.” Since I had no expectation of practicing in Louisiana, that limitation was fine. But, sure enough, the first major lawsuits I worked on after graduating were in Louisiana, and it wasn’t long before I was trying to research state law claims.
As a newly trained common lawyer, I started by reading the cases. As I worked my way through them, I would go back a few years and then hit a case which noted that the civil law in Louisiana had been changed. I went to the statute, read the changes, and then read the comments which said “the changes in the statute do not change the law.” After a few hours of research, I had gone through this routine many times as I worked my way back until I got to the French version of the Louisiana civil law. Looking at several civil law claims, I found the same thing with each line of research. It seemed that no matter what the change to the wording of the statute, it did not change the law. “Of course it changed the law,” I would silently scream, “the wording is completely different!” I felt like the legislature was playing a game of hide-and-seek with the law. I did not buy the line that the law had stayed the same, even though the words used to express the law had changed.
The first step, then, is to acknowledge when you are changing something. The second step is to work through why you are making the change. If that sounds like a command-and-control statement (“we are making the change for you to follow”), then you already know the third step—don’t impose change, invite those who will be affected to help you create change. When the people affected helped drive the change, they are more likely to participate in its success.
So far, I have not said anything remarkable, but I have listed three guidelines mostly followed in the breach. There are other guidelines, such as clearly explaining the expectations and goals for the world after the change, listening and responding to concerns, and course correcting when necessary. But even when you follow all the guidelines, something disconcerting happens. In Lean, that means that the improvement journey stalls.
It Is Easy To Succeed—At First
Any Lean improvement journey should start out with successes. Going from a non-Lean world to a Lean world involves removing waste. Look at any system that hasn’t been through Lean improvement, and you will find waste wrapped around all the processes in the system. Even a poorly run Lean improvement program will pull out some waste, and everyone will feel good about the success. But after several of the improvement exercises, things begin to slow down. The teams are confused where to go and start questioning whether they have hit that point where there is no additional waste to remove, or at least the waste that remains can’t be removed. This is the infamous change fatigue plateau.
What seemed impossible, then became possible, then fun, and then tedious. Going back to the same well or even a new well for more improvements starts to seem like drudgery. Yes, perhaps we can take out some additional steps and trim a day off the lead time, but does it really matter? Over time, the frequency of improvement events drops off. The processes that were improved start to succumb to the overgrowth of waste creeping out from other processes. Wait a bit and everything will recede to where it was before the change. What was accomplished?
Lean is not alone in hitting the change fatigue plateau. As I said at the outset, the key is in what happens next. Lean practitioners were sensitive to the plateau. It is hard to sign people on to a program if you and they know it will eventually die. We learned that for Lean to be sustainable, we needed to focus on kata.
Kata is a Japanese word that comes up most frequently in marital arts (in English, you will hear the word “form” used). A kata can be described as a series of specific steps, in a sequence, that the practitioner practices over and over again, seeking perfection. There are many kata for each type of martial art. If you have ever seen a movie with a martial arts class training, you will recognize kata. The class moves through a sequence of steps with each student performing the same step at the same time. Over and over again.
No, as Lean practitioners, we do not expect everyone to become proficient in karate. But we have borrowed the term kata to mean learning how to do become proficient in improvement so that it becomes second nature. By practicing and repeating improvement activities, the Lean thinker gets to the point where continuous improvement is one of their habits. Across an organization, as everyone moves to continuos improvement, the organization becomes extremely powerful because it is constantly engaged in improving. This continuous improvement is a sign that an organization has moved through Lean change to Lean thinking.
Kata Is Necessary, But Not Sufficient
It isn’t easy to do something over and over again. Martial arts students often drop away after a few years of practice. Practicing the kata requires a mental discipline and many students find they do not have the internal motivation to stick with the training. If you have children and they wanted to play a musical instrument, you probably have seen the same thing happen. At first, they have great enthusiasm (if they helped pick the instrument—see above about involving the person in the change process). They happily go to lessons and even put in some time practicing. Then they hit the fatigue plateau. They practice less frequently and start skipping lessons. Now, that instrument sits in its case in the basement, waiting for the next garage sale.
Kata is important, but we need something more to make Lean a real success. That something more is the commitment to a common goal and to the organization trying to achieve that goal. Put simply, it is a sense of purpose beyond accomplishing what needs to be done each day.
Many companies have tried to get to that sense of purpose by adopting mission statements or slogans. I live in Michigan, so here are some from companies that operate in Michigan:
- “To passionately create innovation for our stakeholders at the intersection of chemistry, biology, and physics.”
- “People working together as a lean, global enterprise to make people’s lives better through automotive and mobility leadership.”
- “Imagination at Work.”
These statements attempt to convey what the company is all about externally, and to give employees a point to focus on as they go through each day. Sports teams do the same thing. Running drills every day is tough, but focusing on a bigger goal (winning the game, being the top ranked team at the end of the season) gives players something greater to focus on as individuals and as a team.
The team concept is important in organizations as well as in sports. If everyone has a common goal, a common purpose, then everyone is in the boat together. Employees have more reasons to work together to improve, because not doing so means they are letting down the team. Learning how to continuously improve becomes part of the competitive spirit of the organization as it works towards its goal.
Can Lawyers Find Purpose?
Lean, then, is like other changes. To succeed, the individuals and the organization must develop the kata of continuous improvement. It isn’t the individual improvement events that make the difference. It is the daily repetition of continuous improvement activities with each improvement building on the ones before that distinguishes the organization. To develop that kata, the organization must provide (with the help of its members) the purpose for going through the effort of continuous improvement. There must be a greater goal.
So far in the legal industry, we have lacked both purpose and kata. The focus has been on cost cutting, and that is never going to be sufficient (putting aside the misunderstanding of Lean). Many organizations in the legal industry are pushing Lean or jumping into it. We already are seeing some experiencing fatigue. The danger of failure is not just an organization laboring under waste. It is the danger of failing to transform. The legal industry must get past its present form and that requires leaders—individuals and organizations. To make it through that transformation, we need purpose. If you can’t articulate the common purpose of your organization, then you have more to worry about than becoming Lean.