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Changing people's mindset with kanban

A mindset is tough to change. It was formed over a significant length of time by being part of the surrounding culture, formal education and personal experience, interests, reading, etc. Over time experiences made are likely to more and more reinforce things thus creating a very clear and sense-making mindset - everything fits together for the person having it.

“You know what, Joe. What you believe in for the last 10 years has actually been proven wrong” is probably not a good start to change Joe’s mindset. That approach is likely to open up a battle. Even if Joe initially has asked someone to be influenced in order to learn about new ways of behaving or doing things.

With a slightly softer opening the battle may just be a struggle but a conflict will still be there. In the context of an organization not only Joe may struggle to change his behavior but also his colleagues. Within the group cross-influencing will also happen. On some days it all goes backwards, on others it seems that the mindset change leaps forward.

The more ingrained a certain mindset is, the longer it will be necessary to have some element that serves as a constant reminder for the need to change. Something like pain. Pain is a strong message. It’s meaning is: stop what you are doing. If you ignore the pain, it will become stronger and the meaning will be more like a last warning before breakdown.

Unfortunately there is something as an organizational pain killer. Chris Argyris in 1986 called it skilled incompetence. Those who are most likely to take it, probably at ever increasing dosage, is middle management. Not only are they medicating themselves, they are also distributing the drug and influence others to also take the same pills.

What we need in this situation is some sort of antidote to rid the organization from the pain killer medicine that has become poisonous.

That antidote may be visualization of all relevant process data and kanban boards to see and feel any process steps and states of work. However, the visualization and the message being shown is likely to be attacked once it gets too powerful or distributed too widely. People like to change other people but don’t like to be changed themselves. Once someone feels uncomfortable the bad message should go away. The person or group will reach for the pain killers and try harder to kill the pain. They are likely also to find an explanation for the issues they face by pointing somewhere outside their group - the enemy is somewhere out there.

So it becomes important to not prompt the use of a stronger dose of pain killers.

Kanban does not change anything from the outset. It is entirely possible to use kanban with a very complicated process with a lot of back and forth or whatever people decided to put into it. Kanban - or better called a simple value stream analysis - allows to observe and measure. It is the perfect tool to determine the current level of pain and pain killer dosage.

A kanban board visualizes how people work, what stations and process steps are involved to create something or get something done. People who are willing to look at it will eventually make discoveries - some earlier, others later. That way learning can happen, because the visualization provides quick feedback, which is essential for learning.

However, learning will only occur, if the dose of pain killers gets reduced. The challenge is to reduce it just a bit so that those with a low pain threshold will not start to scream and panic. Once they do it is likely that any change process will be stopped before it has actually started. So the goal in the first phase is basically to build up enough momentum, get enough people enlightened in order to build up their willingness to change.