By Steve Kane


I recently had the opportunity to watch a value stream mapping training event in an administrative process.  These types of events are enjoyable for me because I always learn something new.  The lesson learned this time was quite unexpected.

The 15 or so people attending the class had already received instruction on value stream mapping as a tool.  This event was to learn value stream mapping as a practice.  The agenda was to go and see the process, gather information from the people in the process, map the value stream, and better understand the current state.

Not being a learner or instructor for this class, I found myself in a great position to simply watch.  I wasn’t particularly concerned with the process being mapped or information being gathered.  The instructor had that well under control.  What caught my eye was the interaction and emotion.

We’re here to help

The learners in the class were on a mission to gather all of the pertinent information and draw the map in a limited amount of time.  The people who worked in the process being mapped had been prepared to expect a large group to interview them about the process.

Saying “This is going to hurt” doesn’t make it hurt any less

Despite the preparation, the people being interviewed appeared to be uncomfortable, and in some cases downright defensive.  They were at the receiving end of a barrage of questions about something very personal to them: their work.  Of course the questions were asked with the best of intentions.  It seemed, though, best intentions didn’t seem to help the situation.  Some of the questions were something like “How long does it take you to do this?” or “Why does it take so long?”

Blindfold?  Cigarette?

The reactions were interesting and, at the same time, painful to watch.  One person’s face turned red, eyes opened wide (as though the fight or flight mechanism had just kicked in), as his voice volume increased.  At the same time his answers were slightly delayed as though he was choosing his words carefully.  Another person was being interviewed while standing near a wall.  He was casually holding a coffee cup.  As the interview progressed, he backed himself against the wall and wrapped both hands arou

nd the cup at chest height in what appeared to be an effort to put something between himself and the people interviewing (or maybe interrogating) him.

It’s so easy to become consumed with the process and process improvement that we lose sight of how our best intentions affect others.  Here are my takeaways from this experience.

  • Lean tools are about people.  Think of the people first.  Their feelings matter.
  • Explain why and help people become part of the improvement.
  • Avoid language that implies or invites conflict.  For example: “Tell me why you need so much time to do this?  Instead, something like “What were the start and end times of the task?” might feel a bit more neutral.
  • When learning or teaching lean tools, be sure to emphasize the human experience for all involved.  The ideal state is that people feel better after participating in a continuous improvement effort rather than worse.
  • Watch body language and facial expressions.  Be attentive to voice volume and speech pattern changes.  If people aren’t at least somewhat pleased to be speaking with you, consider the possibility something is going wrong and work to fix it.

I think a big part of why I was so sensitive to this was that I tend to be very direct and had been in the position to make others feel uncomfortable or defensive in situations like this myself.  I feel terrible for having done that.  I also feel grateful for the reminder to think about respect for people first.

  1. Bill Ruggles

    December 16, 2016 - 10:06 am

    Thanks for the “lessons learned” from your experience as a dispassionate observer of value stream mapping as a practice “in the gemba”. I tend to take the same “direct” approach in my questioning, too.

    When I studied Human Biology and Anatomy back in the early 1970’s, I recall 3 different responses to stress like this — fight, fright, and flight — being included in the theory of Walter Cannon from 50 years earlier. What happened to “fright”?

    Summarized briefly, it states that the onset of a stress response is associated with specific physiological actions in the sympathetic nervous system, primarily caused by release of adrenaline and norepinephrine from the medulla of the adrenal glands. The release is triggered by acetylcholine released from preganglionic sympathetic nerves. These catecholamine hormones facilitate immediate physical reactions by triggering increases in heart rate and breathing, constricting blood vessels and tightening muscles. An abundance of catecholamines at neuroreceptor sites facilitates reliance on spontaneous or intuitive behaviors often related to combating the source (fight), “freezing” in its midst (fright), or escaping from it (flight).

    I believe the stress reaction you observed on the part of the people being interviewed is closest to the one that is no longer mentioned in the literature or common practice: fright or freezing. They didn’t “fight” nor did they “flee”; the just “froze” in place with the anxiety obvious in their body language.

    How can we return this “lost” option to its rightful place as a “typical” response to stress option?

  2. Steve Kane

    December 16, 2016 - 11:08 am

    Bill, this is great info. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Matt Albin

    December 20, 2016 - 9:37 am

    Thanks for sharing these great observations Steve. At my firm we are increasing the use of visual management systems in new product development. Once of the biggest challenges I have is getting managers to ‘go to the gemba’ as staff aren’t very comfortable with high levels of transparency in front of their management. This is a learned behavior from people not using good emotional intelligence in asking questions leading to low trust and fear, neither of which are helpful in making improvements. In my role as a Lean coach as I work to get leaders to the gemba I am also very clear and direct with them about what types of questions will lead to increasing trust and reducing fear and what types of questions will make the team not invite them back or worse yet stop being transparent in sharing problems. Your post is key for any CI practitioner and critical for a Lean coach to intervene if people are not being respected.

  4. John Huber

    December 21, 2016 - 4:37 pm

    Interesting read and relatable to an experience with weekly value stream meeting. Getting all the cards on the table from team members isn’t easy and can be quickly stopped if leadership doesn’t react correctly to these signs. One way leaders can react is by following up and helping them solve the problem at the root. This does two things. Shows leadership is here to help team members be successful and most importantly shows team members how to solve problems.

  5. Paul Todd

    December 23, 2016 - 10:37 am

    To get an idea of what the people being interviewed in these situations feel like, look up a classic scene in the film Office Space. As the “Two Bobs” (two consultants named Bob) interrogate a hapless employee, they ask the question, “What would you say you do here?”

    Whether we intend it or not, this is how we can make people feel with well-meaning questions about the details of their work.

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