I coach a variety of teams in diverse industries in the area of continuous improvement.

A common struggle is overcoming an obstacle that is often perceived as resistance to change.

Improvement is Inherent

Change for the better seems to be a natural aspect of the human condition.  The advances of humanity throughout history are astounding when you think about the millions upon millions of small improvements that have accumulated and compounded in order for us to enjoy the positive aspects of our current condition.

Countless organizations, however, struggle with changing for the better, despite leadership’s insistence on improvement.  How is it that we’re capable of tremendous advances toward a better state and at the same time fail or refuse to do so time after time?

Organizations Struggle to Improve

A team I recently coached with dealt with this issue.  This was a small team working in and office environment.  The organization doesn’t employ a facilities custodian or janitorial service.  The team members are responsible for cleaning individual office spaces, common office areas, restrooms, and the kitchen.

The state of the office wasn’t bad, but it was below the level of cleanliness that any one member of the team wanted.

Beginning the practice of 5S was the beginning of the team’s daily continuous improvement journey.  Several members watched the Gemba Academy videos one S at a time.  The idea was to learn one S, do it, then move on to the next.

Maybe Pushing People to Improve Isn’t Necessary

Shine was easy enough to do.  The team members did a great job of thoroughly cleaning every part of the office.  They had some colorful comments about dust that had accumulated on the top edges of the baseboards and behind toilets.  They also mentioned the men’s room didn’t need three cans of air freshener on the counter.  Already, they were moving into Standardize.

The team knew they’d need to involve the rest of the people in the office to maintain the newly established level of cleanliness.  This was a point that slowed down their progress.

In a very Toyota Kata sort of way the team was asked about their target condition, which was to standardize a rotating schedule of cleaning tasks that involved everyone in the office.  The current condition was that cleaning was done occasionally by some people and no schedule or standards were in place.

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

I could feel a bit of tension when it was time to decide on a next step.  There was some hesitation to go to the rest of the people in the office to suggest they participate with a standardized cleaning task assignment and schedule.

The team had a bit of fear of the response they might get.  They were concerned that their coworkers would be, should we say, less than enthusiastic about being asked to clean toilets.

Finally, Somebody Made It Happen

They brought the idea to their coworkers despite their fears.  As it turns out, the idea was well received and the coworkers were happy to help.

Everyone in the office wanted a cleaner working environment.  No one wanted to be the one to disrupt the status quo, and the good working relationships in the office, to make the improvement happen.

Fear of rejection was a barrier to a simple improvement that everyone wanted.  The problem that prevented progress was imagined–by everyone.

The Lesson I Learned

Put more effort into understanding and removing barriers to continuous improvement than into driving it.  Improving our conditions–our lives–is inherent.

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