Giving Employees Permission to Change


I went through a discussion today that reminded me of a similar situation early in a lean effort at my old manufacturing company a few years back.

Early in lean efforts, one of the things I focus on is 5S, for many reasons. One reason is that it gets employees to evaluate their workplace, give input, and make suggestions. One of the positive side effects of this change is the realization in some employees, as I've heard them say, quite literally:

“You mean it's OK to move things, it's OK to make changes?”

And you know what… sometimes that unleashes a wave of changes that were pent up. I heard this comment today and it's exciting to see people changing things that they wouldn't have considered changing a month ago. These are little “just do it” ideas, sort of like Norman Bodek talks about. They didn't require suggestion forms or approval, no formal “kaizen event”… just do it, just make some small change that makes your workplace slightly easier… then repeat. That's kaizen, right?

The thing that's curious to me is that nobody ever told them, “Don't make changes,” but this fear or unease builds up to the point that the most obvious waste is never addressed by anyone. People dealt with it, or maybe complained, but didn't take action.

I guess it shows that when you don't ask people for their input, when you don't ask them what could be better, that people assume that you don't care and that they shouldn't either?

What are your experiences with these mindsets?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. It is true we need to encourage more improvement by those doing the work. We need to create a system where that is encouraged and supported. However, there can be problems with just making improvements individually. We tend to overreact to variation. Therefore we tend to tamper with systems which actually increases variation and reduces performance. Also there can be effects on other parts of the system due to a change that are not obvious at the point of change. I agree we need to encourage individuals to improve without undue bureaucracy. However, it is good to remember that, such efforts are much more effective and safe when supported by a good system (standardization, PDSA, visibility, communication, lean thinking…).

  2. We always want to encourage the ability to change for the good. Change to just change is never a good philosophy or mindset, actually most employees will revolt at the idea or it has been in my experience.

    My experience has always been getting the employee to do the change & see the effects (whether positive or negative). One thing I have noticed is that the more the complex the process or system is or becomes, the less flexible, malleable and LEAN is becomes.

  3. I don’t think a simple kaizen change such as moving the location of a phone four feet qualifies at tampering. In simple cases, people just know what needs to be done to improve and I don’t think that needs to be bureaucratic.

    I have a different mindset when setting up a more complex system, like a kanban system for material replenishment. I don’t want random individuals making changes to the kanban sizing without some basis and approval. But, moving the location of the kanban mailbox down lower so it’s easier to reach, I would have no problem with someone just changing that.

    The 5S changes I was talking about yesterday did incorporate some training and standardization/visual management.

  4. I agree with that: we do need to encourage more proactive action. I just want to mention a potential risk to watch out for. Without an understanding of systems and interactions sometimes we make changes that we don’t understand the consequences of.

    The beer game is a good example of one way this can cause problems (people don’t always understand all the consequences of their actions). To be clear I agree with setting up systems that allow people to make improvements in the workplace.

    And with an understanding of the systems, and interactions, people can make the distinction between simple changes that are very unlikely to have an undesirable affect later and other types of changes. I believe the goal is to trust them to make the right decisions on what can just be done and what should be piloted (pdsa) or discussed more thoroughly first.

    I just also encourage that an effort is also made to help people see the systemic effects of change. They will then make more effective simple changes and be able to determine when systemic problems require a more thorough process improvement process be used to improve the system.

  5. John, your points are generally true and they’re worth people knowing, but I’m talking about moving a phone. For pete’s sake, there’s no beer game effect involved. It’s moving something four feet so people aren’t walking back and forth constantly.

  6. In Iowa, we are starting a “Lean healthcare collaborative”, similar to the ones that the Institute for Healthcare Improvement has been conducting. We are planning to use 5S as the first “homework assignment” for the group of Lean “newbies”. We had quite a bit of discussion yesterday about whether 5S is the right place to start, but some of the points Mark and others made here make me feel that we made the right decision. 5S starts to change the environment in visible ways, and in my view, that’s a good prelude to the bigger changes to come.

  7. Dean, thanks for your comment. My advice would be to make sure that it’s well communicated that 5S is not lean in its entirety and that 5S is truly a prelude to bigger things.


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