Overcoming Four Big Barriers to a Lean Culture Part 3: Overcoming Learned Helplessness

How to Overcome Learned Helplessness in Organisations?

learned helplessness lean culture cartoon

Observing many companies, we often find four big cultural barriers – complacency, low expectations, learned helplessness, and passive acceptance. So far we have discussed complacency and low expectations. These two cultural barriers come from employees’ beliefs about the organisation. The next cultural barrier, learned helplessness comes from employees’ beliefs about themselves, their role in the organisation and their ability to personally influence change.

Learn About How to Overcome Complacency in Your Organisation

What is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is a belief among leaders and teams that they cannot influence change. It is learned, because very few people come in to a job, particularly a leadership role, believing that they will be unable to change things. New employees are often told by their colleagues that there is “no point asking because nothing will ever change”. This belief is developed over time by management refusing to accept or listen to ideas or even completely ignoring the ideas of their staff. After a very short time the team will simply stop making suggestions and sharing ideas and just put up with whatever problems they are experiencing.

Learned helplessness is reinforced by poor communication. Therefore, if there are not good conduits for a team to communicate their ideas and concerns then it is likely they will never be heard, reinforcing the feeling of helplessness. Learned helplessness can exist at all levels of an organisation. I often hear Lean Managers or even Factory Managers complaining that they cannot implement Lean because Senior Management is not on board.

Why is Learned Helplessness a Problem?

Learned helplessness reinforces the “eighth waste” – under utilised human potential. When people believe that they have no influence and their ideas will not be listened to, they stop sharing their ideas and contribute less to the success of the business. Worse, the belief that employees cannot change things can lead teams to put up with some really terrible things. Dangerous, unhealthy and costly problems can continue until they lead to serious consequences such as a serious accident. At which point everyone admits that they knew about the problem, but did not believe they had the power to influence it or that those who could influence it would not listen to them.

Learn How To Beat a Culture of Low Expectations

Overcoming Learned Helplessness

In many ways, learned helplessness is the easiest of the four cultural barriers to overcome. You simply need to demonstrate to the team that they can influence change, that their concerns and ideas will be acted on. Once people start to see that they can make a difference it will often open a floodgate of ideas. It is therefore important to be prepared for this and have resources and good systems to communicate what is happening with ideas. Often companies will use suggestion schemes to collect staff ideas.

These can work well, but more often prove difficult to sustain and can even make the learned helplessness problem worse when employees see that suggestions continually get ignored, rejected or it takes forever for them to get acted on. More effective is to create a system of daily routine communication such as the Lean Daily Leadership Process backed up by some simple tools for Solving Problems Every Day. This approach makes the team part of assessing the idea and developing and implementing the solution and creates some empowerment and accountability in the team for changing their own work area – the ultimate antidote to learned helplessness.

Overcoming Learned Helplessness as a Lean Practitioner

If you are a Lean practitioner and are feeling helpless, then you are not going be very effective. To start with you need to recognise first that your very employment represents some evidence that the business does support the need to implement Lean. Often, we have seen Lean transformation start in the middle of an organisation, not the top. Find a line manager who wants help and is open to work with you. Find a problem you can help them with and apply Lean to overcome that problem.

Publicise your results and make sure that the manager who trusted you gets lots of credit. You will get credit too, but by getting recognition for the project sponsor you will encourage other managers to step forward and sponsor projects. Repeat this process and you will gradually build a track record of success and critical mass of support for change that the most senior managers will not be able to ignore.

Next month we will talk about the last of the big four cultural barriers, passive acceptance. While the first three, complacency, low expectations and learned helplessness are about beliefs, passive acceptance is about leadership behaviours. Leaders demonstrate passive acceptance when they ignore substandard performance or work practices. We all know that “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept” and therefore if we walk past low standards we accept and entrench them – that is passive acceptance. Catch up with our blog next month to learn more.

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Read Our Lean Culture Series of Blogs

Overcoming Four Big Barriers to a Lean Culture Part 1: Breaking Through Complacency

Overcoming Four Big Barriers to a Lean Culture Part 2: Beating Low Expectations

Overcoming Four Big Barriers to a Lean Culture Part 3: Overcoming Learned Helplessness

Overcoming Four Big Barriers to a Lean Culture Part 4: Stopping Passive Acceptance

Timothy McLean

Author: Timothy McLean

Timothy McLean is the Managing Director of TXM Lean Solutions and is an author of Lean books.