When “Resistance to Change” Is Really Something Very Different


What gets described as “resistance to change” (when that phrase is pointed at others) would often actually more accurately be labeled as:

“Resistance to your idea.”

When leaders say their employees are “being resistant to change,” the more accurate statement would be:

“They're not doing what I want them to do.”

In some of the major Lean transformation stories (in manufacturing in healthcare) usually include stories about some percentage of managers, doctors, or employees who chose to leave the organization. This is often a badge of honor of sorts. Sometimes, those people get labeled as “concrete heads” (I term I think we shouldn't use, as I've blogged about).

Leaders rationalize the departures by saying things like:

  • They didn't like Lean
  • They couldn't handle Lean
  • They couldn't accept change

I was having a discussion about this recently and a light bulb went off. It was an epiphany.

Hear me out.

So you're saying those people LEFT the organization… because… they COULDN'T HANDLE CHANGE?

Quitting a job to go someplace else is a very major life change.

I created this image to helps illustrate a scenario like this, where somebody gets tired of being told to “get on the bus” or to “fall in line” or that they're being “resistant to change” or “difficult.”

That person who quit and left the organization isn't resistant to change. They're not resistant to all change. They proved that by walking out. They're not resistant to changes they initiate.

Maybe they just didn't like what you were doing. Or, they didn't like what you were making them do. Or, they didn't like you making them do something, whether that something is going to a Lean class or considering a new way of doing some form of work.

Sometimes, leaders are pushing well-intended and “correct” changes at people without explaining why.

Seth Godin had a great blog post on this recently (hat tip to Greg Jacobson of KaiNexus for sharing it with me). It was titled “The respect of ‘why'.”

When a bureaucrat or authority figure refuses to explain ‘why', he is showing fear (because he's not sure why) and contempt (because he doesn't have to care).

The executive might also be busy and think they don't have to explain why or engage people in that conversation about “why?” It might be more a matter of ignorance than contempt.

Far too often, I see leaders at all levels encounter what they call “resistance.” They give up on the “resistor” too quickly. They label them as a bad person. That's unfortunate.

We should “lean in” to the conversation, as they say. Maybe that “resistance” is really just somebody having questions… or valid concerns. These are things we should talk about rather than pushing that person away.

“But I don't have time to engage people that way!”

I guess you don't have time to be successful?

As I've learned through studying (and trying to practice) “motivational interviewing,” resistant is a natural part of the change process. It's to be expected. It's also something to be worked through collaboratively.

As a friend (who works in healthcare) said the other day in discussing this topic:

It amazes me how strongly people hang on to the “resistant to change” label when it's usually more a matter of resistance to being told what to do by someone who doesn't fully understand the work or the challenges.

It's definitely true that a little resistance is expected with anything new. There's been more than a couple of times I've found that just being patient and giving people some time to process everything was all that was needed. Once they see the value in the new thing, they accept and support it.

I think some people are just resistant to resistance.”

Maybe the CEO in my image above would be fired by his board for being “resistant to resistance?”

Final thought… I found this bit of wisdom from Dr. John Toussaint's first book On the Mend. His book had stories about some people who left during the early years of Lean. But he also wrote this great passage:

“The old blame and shame culture is likely to emerge at this point [when change becomes difficult. When people resist change, others tend to blame them for being an obstacle and diminish their role in the new process. Organizations must learn that resistance is a good and necessary part of the process. Without sufficient resistance to test and challenge the new ideas, true buy-in and commitment to the new order will be elusive at best.”

Or, organizations (and individuals) can be resistant to that idea ;-)

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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. Hi Mark – I agree with the re-framing of the statement. However, I find executives are far more resistant to change than employees. Executive criticism of employees is a smoke screen to hide their own resistance to change. This is nothing new.

    In his 1912 testimony to Congress, Frederick Winslow Taylor Taylor said: “…nine-tenths of the trouble with those of us who have been engaged in helping people to change from the older type of management to the new management—that is, to scientific management—that nine-tenths of our trouble has been to ‘bring’ those on the management’s side to do their fair share of the work and only one-tenth of our trouble has come on the workman’s side. Invariably we find very great opposition on the part of those on the management’s side to do their new duties and comparatively little opposition on the part of the workmen to cooperate in doing their new duties.”

    And we have found this to be true with Lean over the last 30 years. My book, “Triumph of Conventional Management” documents why this is so.

    • One thing I’ve learned from studying psychology and, in particular, “motivational interviewing” is that “resistance” is a normal part of the change process for people, even if the change is viewed as positive.

      If we say an executive is being “resistant to change,” I think we should also ask why in a respectful way. We should “lean in” to the resistance and engage. If we’re calling executives “resistant,” is it also the case that they’re not doing what we’d want them to do?

      For somebody to change (which includes embracing Lean), they have to think there’s a problem or a possibility for something better.

      If we push the idea of ‘you should be a Lean leader,” what problem are we trying to solve? Does the executive think they have a problem? Maybe not. They might think Lean is fine for “training front line staff.” They are missing the point, but I don’t know what we can do to open their eyes or inspire them. You can’t make somebody change and you can’t make them want to change.

      So, there are many executives who aren’t open to Lean because they think they’re fine. No problem.

      I think the more interesting case would be the executives to say they need to change or want to change, but they’re stuck… they’re “ambivalent” in the language of motivational interviewing. They know they should engage others in problem solving, but they have old habits or rationalize throwing solutions at people because they think that’s the right (or necessary) thing to do in the moment.

      Bob, I think your recent writing emphasizes that executives who aren’t curious about Lean or don’t embrace Lean at all emphasizes they are not bad people. They aren’t stupid. They think they are doing the right thing. Which is why “conventional management” lives on, right?

      • RE: Stuck executives. It’s much more than that. There are severe social, economic,and political penalties to pay if an executive strays from the norms and traditions of their peer group. So most will not stray.

        Right; not bad people, not stupid people, etc. Classical management is clearly superior at meeting executive’s needs — though obviously inferior at meeting everyone else’s needs (employees, suppliers, customers, investors, and communities, as well as society).

      • RE: Resistance as an expression of employee’s valid concern. As you note in your post, execs should be curious and view this a learning opportunity. But as my recent writings have shown, they do not. Such concerns are not part of executive thinking. And it may further reflect executive bias against workers in classical management, whereby their resistance creates the pretext (and opportunities) for reducing the workforce by various means.

        • We can say they “should” be curious, but clearly they don’t have to be.

          I still chuckle at the spine of an issue of the Institute of Industrial Engineers monthly magazine that says:

          “CEO listens, learns”

          BREAKING NEWS!!!!

          It’s a shame that the story about that CEO was so newsworthy, apparently.

          We can’t make people be curious. Are there changes to circumstances and conditions that can lead to somebody being newly curious or more curious?

          I’m not surprised when executives are more resistant to change. After all, they have more experience with their way of doing things, which clearly makes it harder to change, even if they should, need to , or want to.

  2. It’s not the executives. At least not to any significant extent. “Lean Leaders” who don’t view executives as their primary customer are the issue. When Lean Leaders push “building a lean culture” as a primary driver of a lean initiative, that represents such a stark contract with what is important to the c-suite. Slightly shifting the message away from “let’s build a lean culture” and towards “lean is how we effectively execute upon our organizational strategy” may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s not.

    When we don’t view executives as our customers, then our conversation revolves around their resistance to change and whether its appropriate or not. When we view them as customers, then we can focus on what we’re not doing to create value for them.

    • A client relationship is more complicated than other customer relationships. Maybe that’s why there’s a different word (and don’t get me started on organizations that use words like “passenger” or “patient” instead of “customer”).

      The manta says “the customer is always right.”

      OK, so view a CEO as your customer. The CEO hires you to “implement Lean.” You have an obligation to try to help the CEO understand. Let’s say the CEO then refuses to even engage with you. “Go train the staff. Develop the front line managers… that’s the problem,” they say.

      Is the “customer” right?

      That CEO might not even have an “organizational strategy,” especially in healthcare. I mean, they might have bought a strategy document from another consulting firm.

      Some of these organizations with their current leadership are just unfixable.

      That’s not the consultant’s fault.

      If we view executives as the primary customer and they are “being resistant,” we need to lean in and engage them in a discussion instead of just whining about them being resistant.

    • I’d add that a Lean consultant shouldn’t go running around saying Lean is going to change the culture in an organization if the CEO isn’t saying that and if that’s not the CEO’s stated goal.

      The consultant can always choose to walk away if the lack of alignment in goals and approach is unbearable.

  3. Yeah, I’ve had those conversation so I know they’re not easy. Those contracting conversations (in Block parlance) are critical. I steer “implement lean” conversations towards either executing organizational strategy or building/rebuilding organizational strategy (or both).

    Too many lean leaders (internal and external) leap at the “train staff” or “do kaizens” opportunities then grow frustrated when the executive doesn’t eventually embrace lean as a strategic need. That’s not on the executive. Thats on the lean leader for not defining that path.

    The other thing to take away from Block is knowing when to say “no” if you don’t believe waht the client (internal or external) will create value for them over the long term

  4. See comments on LinkedIn

    Brian Shoenfeld
    Senior Vice President at Talon
    Mark Graban this so true. If you want to influence others you need to be open to being influenced first with a genuine goal of finding the best solution. A big part of being open to the influence of others is engaging with them to understand their unique perspective and challenges.

  5. People don’t resist change. Look at their private lives and see the changes ‘THEY’ have made over the last 5 years. The key to understanding this problem is to realise that people don’t resist change; they resist ‘BEING CHANGED’.
    We must start by explaining to our people that the ultimate goal of the change programme is to create an organisation that can compete successfully in the global market now and in the future. It must also be a secure, challenging, fulfilling, and enjoyable/fun place to work. All you then have to do is to put people in charge of their own change process. Give them some simple problem solving tools (not six sigma), a clear direction for the required changes/improvements (*P.Q.C.D.D — Zero 4 D’s — E.F.S.F), time to address the issues in teams of **‘Real Experts’, a supportive management attitude and then get out of their way. You will be amazed by the results. You can see this process in operation on You-tube under ‘Sid’s Heroes’. This is an extract from a six programme TV series we made with the BBC in 1994.
    Before we start a programme we conduct a series of 1 hour briefings with the people who will be involved in the change programme – 10 sessions a day with 25 people on each. We explain the above to the delegates and to ask for their help to make it a reality in their organisation. While they don’t always believe me, when I ask them would you like to, the answer is always ‘Yes’. The rest is just letting them prove they are the ‘Heroes’ I know them to be. Watch the video to see where my confidence comes from.
    Good luck releasing your own Heroes.
    *For the business. PQCDD. —. We must continuously improve Productivity and Quality, Reduce Costs and Delivery times. We also create Delightful experiences for our customers to enjoy in all their direct and indirect contact with our products, services and people.
    * For our machinery, processes and systems; Zero 4D’s – Downtime, Delays, Defects & Damage/ danger to our people (Accidents).
    *For themselves. EFSF. — Make their jobs, Easier, Faster, Safer and more Fun/enjoyable.
    **‘Real Experts’, these are the people who do the work, and have first hand experience of the different elements of the problem to be solved, or the situation to be improved.
    The survival of your organisation and the job security of your people depend upon you improving these values faster than any existing or future competitor.

  6. 15 years into Lean healthcare (still a very short time) and still no definitive success model; maybe it is not change people are resistant to but doing stuff that doesn’t make things better (aka doing dumb stuff), or simply wasn’t worth the effort.

    I am not saying that some healthcare organization aren’t better off for their lean efforts, especially at a tactical level. But unless I missed something, there isn’t an organization that’s gotten it right in a way worth emulating. On the other hand, aren’t there plenty of organizations that have done it wrong?

  7. When I was forming project teams to apply Lean to a problem process in my hospital, I asked the directors to recruit ‘influential skeptics’. I wanted people who wouldn’t just go along when I made a suggestion. I wanted people who would express their skeptical opinions of my observations, tell me when I was wrong and why. These employees weren’t afraid to pull back the curtains and show the rest of the project team the bedsores and bedbugs. The old ‘no problem is problem’ in action! These skeptics took ownership and used their influence to convince their more sheepish (terrified of offending the manager) peers that this could work.
    I would love to be back in those units attacking the stupidity and waste that is still everywhere in the typical hospital.


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