Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
Emotions on the gemba

Emotions on the gemba

Michael Ballé and Fabian Sampayo
October 4, 2022

FEATURE – They say lean is all about people, and yet emotions – something we all feel and express daily – are largely absent from the lean discourse. The authors discuss the role they play in a lean transformation.

Words: Michael Ballé and Fabian Sampayo

You’ve been expecting the sensei’s visit for weeks. You’re proud of the experiments you’ve run with operators on the shop floor, you have nagging questions you want to ask, you’re eager to learn.

On the day, the sensei first asks, “Take me to customer service, where you receive returns from customers.” You’re surprised and wrong-footed. No one ever goes to the corner of the warehouse where returns are stored. It’s embarrassing to see what little attention anyone pays to defective products that actually reached the customers. The sensei shakes his head and says something that sounds like, “No one here cares about quality.” “Now show me where trucks depart.” With renewed embarrassment, you go to the shipping dock that is its usual mess, with boxes and boxes of stuff waiting to be shipped with no clear logic. The sensei rubs his face tiredly and sighs, “No one here cares about delivery either.”

By the time you reach the area you’ve worked so hard to improve, tempers are high. You can feel the mix of disbelief, awkwardness, and resentment in your colleagues. Some are already muttering that this is a waste of time. At the production cell, the sensei shows absolutely no interest in what you so carefully planned to demonstrate. He points to a crate and asks you to explain what it is doing there. He then points to a workstation and asks: “Why are parts so far from where the operator can reach them?” Faces are closed, everybody is upset, and justifications (it’s always been like this) and rationalizations (in fact it’s good because…) are flying about. You’re angry and shamed. You wish you’d never suggested this visit in the first place.

Does this sound familiar? It probably does to anyone who has experienced working with sensei firsthand. If sensei visits are so darn painful, why do lean veterans keep claiming that they are the only path to really learning lean? What is going on?


Like all experienced educators, sensei know that adults only learn when they recognize they’ve made a mistake, acknowledge it, and then try to correct it. Indeed, teaching theory recognizes two phases in the learning process. One, light the fire, create and sustain the motivation to learn. Two, micro-correct gestures and concepts until the person gets it right. The former is fun, the latter not so much – but without it no learning actually happens. The gap between these two phases is created by engaging learners in troublesome problems, problems they will work at until they master them and gain both deeper understanding and practical skills by doing.

But for the teacher to teach, the learner has to learn, which means acknowledging and recognizing mistakes. Mental patterns are not changed by recognizing something worked well. Good news is pleasant and intuitive and simply serves to reinforce existing mental connections. Learning occurs when something did not work as planned and new corrections need to be made.

Like all experienced teachers, sensei will point towards problems you do not see as problems where they know you will find the key to the questions you seek, although you don’t expect it. They say: look there, see the mistake you’ve made, then you’ll understand. This is never pleasant. This puts us on the spot, usually in front of colleagues. It triggers instinctive fight, flight or freeze responses. If we’re not ready for it, the anger and shame will cloud our thinking to the point that we won’t learn anything because our minds will be completely closed.


Our minds hate mistakes. Our brains are wired for self-justification. Cognitive dissonance, the tendency to ignore evidence in favor of previously held beliefs, is one of the most empirically tested laws of social psychology, with more than 3,000 experiments attesting to it. We endlessly justify to ourselves foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts, and react emotionally when confronted with the brutal truth of it.

Recognizing that we’ve done something that might have seemed right at the time but turned out to be flat wrong is the first step to learning, resolution and healing relationships. In lean canon, Taiichi Ohno’s first book on workplace management starts with the need to recognize one’s errors. Chapter one is titled “Wise men mend their ways” and starts with the saying “even a thief is right three times out of ten”. Ohno concludes that if a thief is right three times out of ten, a normal person should be expected to be right five times – which means wrong five times. His second chapter is named “If you are wrong, admit it.”

The difficulty is that admitting a mistake severely attacks our sense of self. First, our need for internal consistency, our belief superiority (being convinced we reason better than others) might stop us from recognizing a mistake for what it is. Then our self-image is at play. If we recognize a mistake, won’t we look stupid, weak or foolish to others? Finally, there is a healthy sense of self-preservation – if we recognize having made a mistake, won’t be we blamed and punished for it?

Personally, for the ego, and socially, for fear of retribution, there is quite a lot at stake. No wonder defensive emotions get involved, and strongly so. Emotions rise in us in two ways: type and power – quality and quantity if you will. First, there is the dominant emotion you might feel, say, shame or fear or anger. Then there is the volume of the emotion, from mild to overwhelming, from disquiet to blind terror, and so on. Furthermore, emotions are usually mixed, which makes them hard to deal with. When the sensei points to something we’ve done badly, we usually experience shame and annoyance, but also curiosity and excitement. Sensei visits are disquieting, and we hate being under the spotlight, but they’re also quite the circus, and exciting and fun, and we love being there. So many emotions are triggered at once.


This emotional mix will be unique to the person and the context. Still, some people have greater emotional agility than others. Emotional agility is essentially the opposite of emotional rigidity. When challenged, we tend to get hooked on either an idea or an emotion (or on denial). “I am so angry right now,” means don’t ask me to be reasonable and listen; “this was not what we were trying to do,” means don’t ask me to think about this further; “I don’t see what this is about,” means don’t ask me to consider any of it. The point is that with strong enough a stimulus, anyone will get hooked. Push the hot button, and you will get the reaction. And it’s perfectly normal.

But from getting hooked we sometimes get stuck, which means we can’t get past the idea, the emotion or the denial. This becomes very tricky because not only does it block rational thought and learning, but it also creates political rifts. Once we’re stuck on an emotion, we’ll naturally self-justify it and justify it, looking for allies to validate that we’re right in being stuck (“This is intolerable, don’t you agree – help me fight this”). Getting stuck means that not only do we deny ourselves the learning, but also block the learning for all by maneuvering to take the topic completely off the table, in order to justify our emotional behavior or rigid thinking.

Emotional agility means accepting that with enough of a trigger you’ll get hooked somehow and then practicing not to get stuck. There are many different approaches. In the Anglo-Saxon world, it’s often about reflecting on our core values and realizing that we’re hooked on something that is really “not us”. In Asia, it will center more on letting go and letting emotions and ideas pass after taking deep calming breaths. In Latin America, it can involve the feeling of being all in this together and keeping a sense of humor, and so on. Different cultures have different preferred ways of helping people getting unstuck, and every person is different and will find their own path to emotional agility. The starting point is realizing the universality of being hooked and getting stuck when the challenge looms large enough – and facing one’s mistakes is definitely challenging.


Is there a way to helping someone to move past getting hooked and avoiding staying stuck?

There is, and you’ll notice that people who have a long-standing relationship with sensei don’t react as badly as people who meet them for the first time. It’s well known in sensei-learner relationship that the afterwork session is just as important as the time on the gemba. This is when ideas are unpacked, beliefs are examined, learning is considered, and the relationship is established.

Experienced sensei know their role is to help move you from being stuck to being rational. Also, they know they need good relationships in order to teach. In other words, they need to establish trust. How can they do that while a key part of their job is to point out mistakes? Surely, it’s difficult to trust someone who’s likely to make you look like a fool at any time. Experienced sensei usually realize that and have known antidotes, such as being non-judgmental, validating, reasoning and ready to help:

  • Non-judgmental: when being put on the spot, the person is feeling judged – both by themselves and others. Their self-image is attacked, which is what triggers defensive emotions. Sensei understands that, so they try to not express judgment of people – focusing instead on the situation. They point, they explain, they try to avoid direct judgment (there is enough self-judgement going around).
  • Validating: sensei will also validate you by being understanding of what you did in context. Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing. It means saying, in these conditions, I understand why you did that. It made sense. Maybe it won’t work out because there are others factors to consider, different theories to envisage, or circumstances change, but you’re not an idiot for having tried it. Thankfully you were there at the time and took charge of this, and now let’s consider priorities and options.
  • Reasoning: conversations on the ground are like walking on two sides of a river. One side is reasonable territory, usually where you discuss priorities and options. The other side of the river is insecurity territory, where people discuss or display their insecurities in a multitude of way. Remaining non-judgmental and validating people is how experienced teachers try to return the conversation to rational territory and keep it there are long as they can.
  • Reachable and ready to help: as you develop a relationship with a sensei, you often find they’re not at all the forbidding characters you first thought. They’re often available any time you reach out and ready to help both with advice and political support. They usually have little formal power but a great deal of influence and are not shy to use it to help their students move forward. Trust grows out of the many skirmishes we fight together, as we help each other out.


The most robust model of change we have remains Kurt Lewin’s model of unfreeze-change-refreeze. Back in the 1940s, he envisioned changing the shape of a block of ice by first melting it, then casting it differently and then refreezing it into its new shape. Over decades, people have looked for and tried many approaches to unfreezing, which is essentially about getting others to understand the necessity for change, mull over the impact for them and getting on board, then changing, narrowing down on the concrete before/after of the change and letting people express their reservations and difficulties until they try it out and experiment for themselves, and finally refreezing, which means people adopting the new way of doing things as the new normal. Refreezing starts to happen when someone who has experienced the change starts selling it to another person who hasn’t.

The physics imagery is misleading. Change is not just rational; it is emotional, too. Unfreezing is as much about handling defensive reactions as it is about explaining the need for change. Changing entails sustaining motivation while people experience setbacks and backslides in their attempts. Re-freezing requires people to commit to the new way of thinking and working and integrate it in their self-image – it needs a sense of accomplishment and recognition from others, more emotions.

Kaizen literally means change for the better. Working to establish a kaizen spirit is born out of the optimism of seeking “better”, but we also need to realize that change triggers negative emotions and defensive reactions – it’s all par for the course. A better understanding of the emotions involved in the kaizen process can help us accelerate kaizen throughout the business. We can focus on both helping people with working on their own emotional agility, as well as recognizing what can help when they get stuck.

There is not a magic recipe to handle emotions and we want to finish this article by highlighting the power of being conscious about emotions to ensure a successful lean transformation.

For making change, be it small (kaizen) or radical (kaikaku), you will need a mood in which conversations can flow, enabled by leaders who are non-judgmental, validating, reasoning, reachable and ready to help. This will ensure a state of peace, trust, and ambition, in which teams can nurture their talent. If we do not acknowledge the emotional side of a lean transformation, we’ll find it hard to tap into the full potential of our talent.


Michael Ballé photo

Michael Ballé is a lean author, executive coach, and co-founder of Institut Lean France.

Fabian Sampayo photo

Fabian Sampayo is a lean coach and process improvement leader at Mercado Libre, the largest online ecommerce and payments ecosystem in Latin America.

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