Reader Question: Getting Operators on Board


I got this question on the Lean Board, thought it was worth sharing to the bigger audience here.

Anyone have any success stories on extremely difficult concrete head operators?

I have a couple that just don't get one piece flow in their cell. We have experienced 30% increase in productivty, 20% reduction in defects, 110% increase in value stream inventory turns, and the department self schedules from a finished goods kanban. However, I have a couple of operators who insist we were better the old isolated islands of batch and push. I've coached, presented, listened, etc. I thought once we got their cell going it would be obvious. I just can't convince them even though they are experiencing it every day. We still have a long ways to go and I need these guys to keep improving but I can't get then to move forward improving the workplace within the TPS framework.

Any advice?

I'll post my response in the comments. What do you think? I think rather than just blaming people as being difficult (or “concrete heads” as you sometimes hear), it's important to ask “Why are they resisting?” It could be the old “resistance to change,” but there could be other issues, fears, or anxieties (real or imagined) under the surface.

This is a question that's relevant to hospitals as well as factories…

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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. Two thoughts:

    1) It could be just a matter of time. Don’t give up. Give reinforcement about the metrics and benefits to the customer

    2) Ask “What’s in it for me?” as an operator… what benefits are they getting out of this? The opposite to that will help point to the cause of their resistance… what are they fearful of? Job loss? Working harder without any perceived benefit?

  2. In the Agile software development space, Dale Emery has a lot of useful things to say about this sort of thing: Resistance as a Resource

    The short version… be curious about why they resist rather than label them as “concrete heads”.

  3. Thanks for the link, Jason.

    Yeah, calling folks “concrete heads” isn’t real high on the “respect for people” scale, whether that phrase is being pointed at operators or supervisors (I’ve heard it used in that content too).

  4. I’m sure the improvements you have made are great for the business but what have you done to make the operator’s job better?

    Find the biggest source of frustration for the operator and fix it! And don’t just ask him either; observe, learn from him, and then go to him with the problems that you are seeing in his job. Finally, work together to solve them. Then he will feel like he is an important resource.

    When you can win over those who are the most stubborn, they can become some of your greatest allies.

  5. It’s hard to answer this accurately without knowing a few more facts.

    One key question I would you ask is how were these changes implemented?

    Were they pushed on the operators or were the operators involved in the process? If they weren’t involved, I am not surprised to hear they are opposing you.

    If, however, they were involved and still don’t want to get on board I think as a previous poster commented you should do your best to really understand why they are against it.

    They may be dealing with other issues you may not realize… such as smaller paychecks since their OT was cut (as a possible example).

  6. Ron,

    Extensive operator involvement occured to achieve the transformation, however, these particular were not part of the events. Trying to involve them now, but they wish to go back to batch and push because they feel they were more productive (maybe just telling me that and I haven’t surfaced the real issues).

    In the dept we have approximately 5 resistors out of the 35 across 3 shifts.

    The department was moved and completely redone, painted, relighted, etc.

    We have been operating this way for a year. It was the next department slated to move South hadn’t business improvements been made.

    Thats the background. Thanks for all the help. This has caused me to do some serious reflecting these last couple of days!


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