Guest Post: Use forced habits to change behaviors


Mark's note: Today's post is by an old friend of mine and this blog, Jamie Flinchbaugh. This post is a preview of the free webinar that Jamie will be doing next Tuesday, hosted by me and KaiNexus. We hope you can join us.

jamie flinchbaughTools are not enough to be successful. They have to be supported by the right behaviors. This is something that I learned early in my Lean journey, and have made efforts to solve this challenge ever since.

That challenge is hardly solved, but we've made a lot of progress. Changing behavior requires deliberate action. Most leaders try one thing, find it doesn't work, try one more thing, still no change, try one more thing. But our old behaviors, and the beliefs that support them, are not a product one action but of many over time. One action is not going to change them again. So we need a series of deliberate actions, put together as a strategy, to drive certain behaviors.

Next Tuesday, I will be doing a webinar about how to develop a practical strategies for behavior change on behalf of KaiNexus next week. But for starters, let me describe one useful tactic in such a strategy: the forced habit.

The Forced Habit

Because Lean is empowering and engaging, we think that everyone should just decide to do Lean. But forcing a habit until it becomes an internalized belief is a very useful tool in achieving this outcome.

Consider an example. One organization I was working with was trying to encourage people to work on small and rapid improvements. They were taught how. They were encouraged. They had incentives. And they even wanted to. But they were stuck. Nothing was happening.

#Lean Tools are not enough to be successful. They have to be supported by the right behaviors. Click To Tweet

Until we forced it. We required one change every two weeks.

They had an idea. “Can you get it done in two weeks?”


“Then how can you make it smaller?”

This continued over and over until they got down to an idea that they could get done in two weeks. Then we forced a second, and a third, and more. Until they just started going on their own.

They couldn't get out of the starting gates on their own. They had to be forced. But once they were, they found not only that it wasn't that scary, but they learned how to do it. And they started doing it.

There is nothing wrong with forcing the change. It's not a sustainable way to keep a change. But, it is a means to get people to experience it. And that experience is part of changing behavior permanently.

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Jamie Flinchbaugh
Jamie Flinchbaugh is an accomplished Entrepreneur, Senior Executive, and Board Member with more than 20 years of success spanning finance, manufacturing, automotive, and management consulting. Leveraging extensive operational experience, Jamie is an invaluable asset for a company seeking expert guidance with process improvements, lean strategies, and leadership coaching in order to transform operations, reduce costs, and drive profitability. His areas of expertise include continuous improvement, entrepreneurship, coaching and training, process transformation, business strategy, and organizational design.


  1. This post is supported by my research on culture change. The best way of changing a culture is to force a behaviour change around a behaviour standard that helps communicate the values. So, for example, if you are trying to build more safe working, then forcing a behaviour standard like parking in reverse, can help you communicate your commitment and get people to start behaving in safer ways.

  2. Rather than framing it as “forcing” activity, I’d maybe frame it as “setting expectations.”

    We don’t want “forcing” to become dysfunctional. Organizations say “everybody must do two Kaizen improvements this year” so people run around frantically in December (or the last week of the year) to “hit their number.”

    Better would be to set expectations and then have managers and leaders be supportive.

    A CEO saying “I know everybody can do two Kaizens this year” needs to be supported by front line managers giving a damn and participating and helping people.

    I got an email the other day about “We launched a Kaizen program, but managers and supervisors weren’t participating.”

    Um, they hadn’t really launched a Kaizen program, then had they?

    One of their proposed countermeasures was an incentive system.

    An incentive system wouldn’t be necessary if managers and supervisors were participating and engaging people in Kaizen. That’s the problem to solve there.

    So, if managers are going to “force,” then they should also participate and support people, otherwise you risk just irritating people.

    • I think the “short term pressure” Jamie describes is a good alternative to those dysfunctional targets you write of; assuming of course that those involved understand that it is only a short term thing.

      A similar approach is to package up a given quota of improvements as the practical component of any training. This makes use of people’s intrinsic motivation to “complete the training”, which does sound a bit more positive than “forcing”.

      And yes, management participation and support are a pre-requisite as always.

  3. While both from the same thread, I actually think there is a distinction between setting expectations and forced habits. Often setting expectations is about what someone is expected to do on their own, whereas forced habits is an experience and event you are deliberately create for people.

    Yes, if done poorly, it can backfire. But so can any leadership move. They have to be taken with care.

    I don’t mind the language of forced habits, because its fairly descriptive. Too often we use language that doesn’t accurately describe what it is to make it more palatable, but it loses too much meaning. I like to call a band-aid a band-aid, firing someone is not “reduction in force” but is firing someone, and so on.

    Now, all by itself, this will often be a failed tactic. In the webinar, I hope to paint a picture of how you string together multiple tactics to become a strategy. No one action will be enough to get the desired outcome.

  4. From LinkedIn:

    Sarah Jennings, MBA:

    “It takes a village” because if management doesn’t buy in 100% it won’t work. We have become so PC, that I have seen that “Forced habit changes” leads to “trampled feelings” and it all falls apart.

  5. For our target market (lawyers) we don’t use the language of forced habits but we certainly have used the technique. We frame it as a series of challenges. Lawyers like to be challenged, and they are very competitive, so anything that “gamifies” change has a chance of success. I like the idea of the 2-week time frame (something we haven’t used with our clients). Great post – looking forward to the webinar.


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