Reaching a Lean Transformation Tipping Point

This is the time of year when I start to get cabin fever. I love winters in Minnesota – even the process of bundling up to go for a walk in below-zero temperatures provides a certain satisfaction for me. Yet, there is nothing like a couple warm sunny days to get me thinking about spring. Even though it’s still a couple months away, I start to anticipate the moment when my local lake transforms from a solid to a liquid again – ICE OUT!

Ice out happens very quickly, and a lake will go from being entirely covered with ice to entirely clear often in a single day. However, this “instant transformation” is actually the culmination of a much slower process that happens below the surface. Since water is most dense (heaviest) at 39°F, lighter, colder water in the form of ice floats at the top. As the water in a lake heats up in the spring, water that warms above freezing sinks to the bottom of the lake, leaving the ice at the top. A lake undergoes a lot of warming while the ice at the surface remains apparently intact. Then, as the water continues to warm, a tipping point is reached and the remaining ice warms until it too becomes denser and sinks to the bottom of the lake. The sudden change is actually the result of a steady, ongoing process that’s mostly unseen from the surface.

A similar tipping point happens as an organization or project undergoes a lean transformation. From the outside, the switch can seem to be effortless and happen very quickly. A culture of complacency, resentment and being stuck in old habits can be replaced overnight with a mood of openness, ambition and possibility. Yet, those on the inside know that the sudden change is the result of a gradual warming that’s been happening just below the surface.

When lean practices effortlessly take root and begin to impact the actual work at hand, it’s likely to be the culmination of deeper changes. In advance of this kind of tipping point, we see leaders learning new ways to interact with their teams, and create a culture of support, and psychological safety – where it’s safe to speak up about problems and concerns, and a team culture of swarming to resolve issues quickly and collaboratively. Animosity and defensiveness are replaced by a sense of belonging and trust in your teammates. Although it takes some time, this shift below the surface sets the stage for a sudden new effectiveness in the team.

So, what are the ways you’re warming the waters, even as the ice at the surface appears to be unaffected? Have you been successful in creating an environment that’s ripe for change? Is your organization approaching a tipping point?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience with creating an environment and culture that’s ready for rapid change. Some of my thoughts for bringing lean thinking to the world of projects are in the book, Better Building: Lean Practice for the Project-Driven Organization. Let me know what you think!

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