Nov 23, 2012

Lean ideas can be like squirrels in the attic


WARNING: Some content in this post may be unpleasant to sensitive readers.

We said goodbye to a little guest today -- a little ground squirrel. You might think squirrels are cute, but when one is running around above your ceiling at all hours of the day, they lose their charm. In our case, as I listened to occasional scrabbling sounds, I went through the denial phase -- maybe it's on the roof outside, maybe it will just go away, maybe it's just my imagination.

Eventually, I accepted the idea that we had some kind of animal up there. It sounded bigger than a mouse. Dealing with such things is outside my job description, so I had to motivate the responsible person to deal with the problem. He too had to go through denial and disbelief. After hearing some communication that could possibly be called nagging, he filled some cracks in the exterior fascia with expandable-insulation-in-a-can and applied some duct tape. (It's black duct tape so the neighbors won't be horrified.)  If our hypothesis was correct that the animal was coming in and going out, we'd have a solution. I didn't say a lot about it, but the effort was really in vain unless all the other little cracks are sealed. But that would lead to a giant project, including painting all the trim on the house, for which I have yet to select a color. I'm hoping there aren't more ways in, and have yet to inspect the entire fascia. I know it's wishful thinking.

Eventually, it was clear that our attic had become home to someone. Let's think. Is it a big problem or a small one -- mice or squirrels? Put out some D-con or a live trap? What have other people done to solve the problem? Let's see what's on the internet. Let's see what's on offer at The Home Depot. (The guy at the pest control section had some pretty scary stories about people with squirrels in their houses.) We leave with mouse bait, mouse traps, and a live trap. We decide not to try pouring some beer into a bucket so that the creatures would be lured into death by drowning, a popular method advocated on the web.

Back home and inside the attic, getting to the source of the problem is not easy -- the roof is built with trusses and the attic is filled with a forest of 2 x 4s going up, down, and diagonally about 18 inches apart. No wonder he had been reluctant to deal with the problem! Mike struggled to squeeze through and get as close as possible to their favorite corner, in the dim and wavering light of the flashlight I held from the attic opening. Being close up -- closer to the gemba, if you will -- I could see another of his problems -- if a visitor liked staying under the blankets of fiberglass insulation, you couldn't see whether they were even there. The fiberglass added more risk -- contamination. All clothes will have to be washed after the foray into the unknown space. Nothing's simple.

The result? By the next day, the rascal was in the trap. He was taken far, far away so he'd never find his way back in. At least one visitor is out of the house. There could be more. We don't know.

There's an overhanging branch to be cut if more creatures aren't to creep in. Accepting the need and acting on it doesn't seem to have happened. But that's part of having the whole tree taken down (it's half dead), which involves asking the neighbor if it's our tree or theirs. And if we take down one tree, we might as well take down all the trees we need to get rid of. That's something we have not agreed upon. And is that part of a big landscaping job that will cost thousands of dollars and have to wait until spring?

One issue leads to another, but they all circle the reality that undesirables can get back in at any time. But we know how to get rid of them. And we can always call the exterminator.

If lean thinking is your vermin

Our pest control experience made me think about unwanted lean ideas in an organization.

People who don't want lean to make its way into the organization can deny to themselves that any lean buzz has started. They can try to eliminate any talk about lean by sealing off the people from any contaminated thinking. Do they fight the idea with another idea? Which idea? What have other people done to make the idea go away in their companies?

Ultimately, despite every effort to keep them out, lean ideas are so plentiful that it's inevitable that they make their way inside. You might seek out and terminate the idea carriers, but more are left behind. So far, most efforts to infiltrate the organization with lean ideas end in failure. Without help, they are just not powerful enough. That's why only 5% of companies who even try to allow lean ideas to come into the organization are able to use them. The owners of the old culture defend it.

Here my analogy fails, I hope. I don't want squirrels to proliferate in my house, but I do want lean ideas to take hold and prosper in businesses, hospitals, government offices, and in nonprofit organizations. I want them everywhere. I want them welcomed into organizations, not exterminated. But that's more wishful thinking, and I know it.


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