Lean Transformations Group

It's a Paradigm Problem

Making real change requires examining your current leadership paradigm and its management processes and ultimately, learning a new, more effective paradigm that can move your organization forward. This is what I’ve learned over the past 18 years of working with leaders who say they are passionate about helping their organizations succeed. Without this depth of analysis and sincere personal involvement, your change efforts will likely fail.

Indeed, over 70% of all organizational transformation efforts do fail, and Lean transformation efforts are included in this low success rate. This is largely because most change efforts start with senior leaders assigning an external or internal consulting group to drive change from the top down through a formulaic and programmatic approach (i.e., Six Sigma) with little to no understanding of their role in leading the change process.

Why do I believe Lean initiatives fail specifically? While change of any kind is never driven from the “top down,” my work has taught me that the leader’s involvement in most Lean efforts almost always is either not adequately defined or it’s completely missing. More often than not, leaders are near totally absent from the real work of the change process. The leader’s role in creating a culture transformation to a new leadership and management paradigm is given little to no attention.

A paradigm is our usual way of thinking about or doing something. Changing a work paradigm involves questioning the way we think about all of the actions we take in our daily work lives. We take over 90% of our actions without thinking, so slowing down and questioning our unconscious assumptions is the first step toward meaningful change.

Why does this matter? We currently live in a very complex (and let’s hope, adaptive) world and our management practices simply do not adequately address complexity science. In addition, we struggle to keep up with the fast pace of change in our organizations and in the world.

What is the primary reason leaders are not effective at solving complex business problems in a complex world? In my opinion, most leaders are living and working in a paradigm that we might call “Imposing Blanket Solutions.” Leaders try to apply quick blanket solutions to every problem they encounter without first understanding the true nature of a problem they need to solve. Leaders tend to select improvement ideas and tools that they are comfortable with and focus on results rather than process. The alternative would be for leaders to embrace what I believe is a much more effective paradigm, what I call “Problem Solving for Complexity.”

Each leadership paradigm is based on a set of unquestioned assumptions that trigger certain behaviors. By understanding your assumptions and practicing new behaviors (following a specific leadership practice model), leaders can move their organization to the paradigm of Problem Solving for Complexity. But first leaders must be willing to consciously move beyond a “tell and do” style of management to one in which they aim to cultivate problem-solving behaviors in themselves and their employees. With practice and through careful modeling, leaders can play a critical role in making sure that these new problem solving behaviors and practices organically spread across the organization. The leader’s job is to create the conditions for change by building an environment of trust, respect, and mutual accountability.

How do I know this? Again, I have been thinking about the problems of leading transformational change for nearly two decades. I’ve had three different learning opportunities to observe, analyze, and learn about problems with change efforts.

First, I worked as a coach/consultant with over 70 companies across diverse industries studying their approaches to change. Most of them went with a top down, program-oriented approach based on “deploying” solutions across their organization. Second, in 2008, I co-developed a workshop with The Lean Enterprise Institute called “Transformational Leadership” introducing leaders to critical behaviors and practices that would support cultural transformations. I worked with hundreds of leaders and learned a tremendous amount in those 10 years. I also discovered key insights about the role of leaders in creating culture change. Lastly, in 2015, my colleague David Verble and I designed our own study intended to understand the current state of Lean by questioning over 20 Lean coaches, consultants, and practitioners (most of them from the U.S.) about what they experienced as barriers to real change. Through careful analysis of their responses, we came to understand so much more about the role of the leader in the Lean change initiative.

To more fully explore what you can do as a leader in creating the conditions for change, I have co-authored a book with Olga Flory entitled Transforming Leader Paradigms: Evolve from Blanket Solutions to Problem Solving for Complexity (available from Routledge in June 2019). It offers guidance for leaders who want to better understand their current unquestioned assumptions that go on to reinforce the ineffective leadership behaviors and organizational behaviors.

With this book, we aim to support leaders in modeling new behaviors based on those assumptions that are effective for complex problem solving. We draw on neuroscience, complexity science, Gestalt theory, and our own personal observations to offer new ways of working. Our hope is that these methods help leaders improve their technical and social skills to facilitate meaningful change in complex organizations that are trying to make change in a fast-changing, complex world.

Write me if you’d like to talk more.


Significantly improving your
operational performance.

Contact us to learn more