Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
Dealing with resistance? Adopt a flexible stance

Dealing with resistance? Adopt a flexible stance

Frances Steinberg
August 20, 2015

FEATURE – In her second piece for PL, Frances Steinberg returns to the topic of working more effectively with people and the importance of going beyond the structured approach of kata familiar to so many of us.

Words: Frances Steinberg, PhD, Company Director, Solution un-Limited

In a previous article for Planet Lean, I discussed the importance of being flexible and having resistant, uninterested, challenging, or obstructive people pull responses from you. In this follow-up piece, we’re going to explore how to extend your interpersonal skills past the structured forms of kata to further increase your effectiveness when working with people.

Like their martial arts counterparts, lean practitioners understand that through repetitive practice, such as the Improvement and Coaching katas, users can transform the systematic, scientific components of lean into a foundational habit, a coherent meta-skill that can be applied in a wide range of situations.

The solid base obtained from practicing their kata will ultimately enable the lean practitioner to go past the pattern, in the same way a musician improvises more effectively if they have mastered scales (see Mark Applebaum's TED Talk for a good demonstration).

In the martial arts, once a practitioner has developed skills through kata, the next step is to practice the waza or bunkai of the pattern. So instead of practicing kicks and punches in isolation, moves are practiced as a response to an opponent. In the same way, lean practitioners can gain more insight into the purpose of their kata techniques by practicing the skills in relation to another person.

Of course, in waza and bunkai, the person you’re working with, the uke, always does exactly what they’re supposed to; in the real world their behavior is unpredictable.

To prepare for the possibility of such unexpected challenges, the next step in martial arts training is kumite, loosely translated as sparring, or more specifically a uniting or exchange of hands. Martial artists know that your effectiveness in kumite depends on the ability to hold your center while flexibly adjusting your stance to meet the complexities and direction of the attack.

Because in freestyle kumite anything can happen, you need to develop heno (acting without thinking). Theoretically, the more solid the foundation gained from kata, the more easily it is to find the right reaction. Similarly, in unpredictable interpersonal situations, lean practitioners need to keep their focus on the goal they want to achieve and then flexibly adjust the stance they use given the unique characteristics of each individual and the particularities of the context.

One way to accomplish this is to use the interactive PDCA system, FLEX, described in the The value of pulling with resistance piece. There are five steps to the process:

  • Identify the target you want to reach.
  • Determine if you need to be more FLEX-ible to reach the goal.
  • Identify what the other person is saying (and why they are saying it).
  • Use techniques that will increase the chance of success.
  • Avoid techniques that will make things worse.

So when you’re faced with the diversity of reactions from people at the gemba, which is essentially a kumite situation, you can use FLEX to extend the skills you learned from kata:

Rick Whiteside, one of the developers of the FLEX system, was brought in to consult with a district mental health unit about how to reduce their waiting list and improve the quality of service delivery. When he suggested that they might benefit from using a lean healthcare model and delineate value from the perspective of the clients instead of the staff, he received two very different responses from Dave, the Team Leader and Naomi, the Service Manager:

Dave thought Rick’s plan sounded like a really exciting way to proceed. He had attended a Lean Healthcare Summit last year and thought that the team would embrace the idea and be willing to go through the VSM or A3 process to see how they could move forward. Looking at his reaction, Rick saw Dave was definitely saying YES to the process—it fit with his philosophical views and his previous training. Rick knew he could depend on Dave during the team sessions to work productively and help other team members achieve the goal. There didn’t seem to be any need for Rick to use FLEX or adjust his normal way of working.

Naomi couldn’t understand why in the world anyone would define value in terms of the client.  She said she struggled to recruit and retain staff as it was, and Naomi felt if she suggested to the psychiatrists and psychologists on her team that their well-being was not as important as how their patients felt about the process, they’d run out the door or complain about her to the administration.  Rick determined Naomi was firmly saying NO to the idea of defining value in terms of client satisfaction rather than from the perspective of her professional staff. It was clear that reasoning with her was futile, because her behavior and attitude was not going to change by providing either facts or insight. He decided to use Naomi’s hook of caring about her clinicians and wanting to ensure their retention and happiness. Rick agreed with Naomi that the time of her psychiatrists and psychologists was valuable. To that end, he was going to work with Dave and some of the administrative staff to identify measures that would streamline service delivery and reduce the amount of time that professionals had to spend in non-therapeutic activities. They’d get input from clinical staff to make sure the new approach would meet their needs. Naomi thought Rick’s idea sounded good and agreed to the plan.

As you saw in the case example, when you’re being FLEX-ible, you stop pushing the philosophically valuable, but currently unhelpful, normal way of delivering your kata. Instead, you let the unexpected moves of what the other person is ”saying” pull a more effective stance from you, resulting in everyone being able to reach their mutually agreed-upon goal. Let’s see how it works in another kumite situation:

Ron was called into an exercise equipment manufacturing plant because they were having difficulty filling orders on time. He began by meeting with the production group as a whole, but it quickly became clear that several members of the team needed different strategies because of what they were “saying”:

Joe was relieved to see Ron. He’d been desperately trying to get orders out on time, but hadn’t been able to achieve it. Joe was worried that if they didn’t clean up their act, not only would his job be at risk, but it could mean the plant would have to close. He’d heard good things about Ron from a friend of his that worked for a company where Ron had previously consulted. Joe said he was willing to do whatever Ron told him because things needed to get sorted now.

Joe was definitely saying YES to Ron’s consultation—in part because he was in crisis, but also because he knew someone who had found Ron helpful in the past. Because the situation required immediate intervention, instead of his usual preference of teaching the process to Joe and having him develop his own solutions, Ron worked through an A3 with Joe and then suggested some countermeasures. Once the current fulfillment issue resolved, Ron made sure that Joe felt comfortable constructing A3s and generating strategies on his own.

Hattie didn’t understand why she needed to attend the group discussion since her only role involved processing orders when they first arrived, and she was neither making the equipment nor loading it on the truck. Hattie said that she’s much too busy with her own job to spend time playing with Ron’s charts. When Ron explained why it’s helpful for everyone to have input and that it was important to look at the flow from beginning to end, Hattie disagreed and said that if Ron had a brain in his head it should be obvious that the issue was the lazy men in the factory and not her.

Hattie was definitely saying NO—in part because she was overworked, but also because she didn’t buy Ron’s explanation of why it would be helpful for her to engage in the lean process.

Ron made sure not to react to Hattie’s derogatory statements or to give her further explanations. He enquired whether there was someone else in the admin office who could provide the input instead of Hattie; and since workload seemed to be a hook for Hattie, Ron suggested he could talk to her separately from the group so it would use her time more efficiently.

Clark told Ron that he could not attend the group meeting because there is currently a major meltdown with the company server. Clark says he will be quite happy to talk with Ron to see how IT can be of help with the order fulfillment issue once the server issue gets sorted.

Ron’s initial impression is that Clark is either saying MAYBE or NO OK to participating in the lean process. Clearly the issue with server needed to be attended to immediately, and Clark appeared interested in participating after the system is fixed. And in fact, once the crisis was resolved, Clark made himself available. Ron enquired whether server meltdowns were common in the company and if so, whether that might be impacting the order fulfillment issue. When Clark indicated that this was a one-off event, Ron showed him the VSM that the rest of the group had generated and asked Clark how he thought the steps interfaced with IT.

Hopefully, you’re now feeling a bit more empowered to go beyond kata and become more FLEX-ible in handling the unique, spontaneity of interpersonal kumite.


Frances Steinberg photograph
Currently based in New Zealand, Frances Steinberg, PhD, company director of Solutions un-Limited, is a psychologist, martial artist, interactive learning designer, international speaker, and author of over 10 books on working with challenging people.

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