Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Tipping Point of Lean Culture

If you haven’t read The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference yet you should. This book by Malcolm Gladwell is a must read for anyone involved in change management. The Tipping point is when an idea, trend, behavior, product, or message creates enough critical mass crossing a threshold where change becomes unstoppable. It is this epidemic of change that many seek to make their Lean journey sustainable.

Gladwell describes three rules (or agents of change) in the tipping point of epidemics:

1) The Law of a Few
According to the 80/20 principle 80% of the work will be done by 20% of the participants. This 20% who are responsible for starting word-of-mouth epidemics are described in three essential roles called connectors, mavens, and salesmen. Connectors are people with the ability to bring the world together. They know lots of people, particularly important people. Mavens are teachers and students of information with an abundance of knowledge. Salesmen are the persuaders, charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills.

2) The Stickiness Factor
Stickiness refers to the specific content and presentation of a message to make it contagious, memorable or sticky.

3) The Power of Context
Human behavior is a lot more sensitive to and strongly influenced by its environment. The Broken Window Theory suggests that crime is the inevitable result of disorder and my reduced by improving the environment and thus perception of the environment. Another example is the rule of 150, which is the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuine social relationship.

These three elements of change are the same elements used in successful Lean transformations. Jim Womack and Daniel Jones talked of a similar action plan describing Wiremold’s transformation in the early 1990’s in their book Lean Thinking. “The trick is to find the right leaders with the right knowledge, some type of crisis to serve as a lever for change, and quickly creating dramatic change in the value-creating activities.”

The sensei is symbolic of the mavens who have the knowledge for change. Sensei’s show us how to change. The salesmen and connectors are often referred to as the change agent. They are committed to convince us to improve. In lean transformations you hear bout creating that “burning bridge” which is analogous to the stickiness factor. This is often related to protecting our jobs from global competition but there can be other crises for which change is necessary and vital. Many lean transformations start with some sort of 5S initiative which is the broken window theory of lean. You may also find value stream maps, visual factory elements, and pull systems in the beginning. These are all about changing our comfort zone in our current environment toward a Lean Thinking organization.

Gladwell concludes with this insightful comment about how an organization can support successful change:

What underlies successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus.

If you are not using these rules for creating a tipping point in your lean transformation this may be the reason it is not spreading like wildfire in your organization.


  1. This isn't the easiest book for some to read but we feel it has an absolute connection to lean. We even include a review of it in issue #5 of Lean Progress. Most people think about spreading an idea through an organization by using the organizational chart, as if the lines on paper were actually channels through which ideas and interest flowed. But that's not how it happens. It's much messier. We consider this understanding critical to being a lean change agent, and have even included it in our course Leading Lean.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh

  2. I love the analogy! I'm actually going to write a post on his book Blink and Lean. I think that if you get the "connectors, mavens, and persuaders" on board you're pretty much set with a lean transformation :)