Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Lean Features
Etienne Nichols
It’s not the job that’s the problem. It’s the tools you have to do it with.
Chris Caldwell
Significant breakthroughs are required, but fully automated facilities are in the future
Megan Wallin-Kerth
Or, how mistakes factor into a kaizen mindset
Eric Whitley
Manufacturing methods and technologies that improve waste management
Donna McGeorge
Design the day for maximum productivity with this Nano Tool

More Features

Lean News
Embrace mistakes as valuable opportunities for improvement
Introducing solutions to improve production performance
Helping organizations improve quality and performance
Quality doesn’t have to sacrifice efficiency
Weighing supply and customer satisfaction
Specifically designed for defense and aerospace CNC machining and manufacturing
From excess inventory and nonvalue work to $2 million in cost savings
Tactics aim to improve job quality and retain a high-performing workforce
Sept. 28–29, 2022, at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, MA

More News

Mark Graban


Stop Spending Money on Problem-Solving Training

Focus on psychological safety instead

Published: Tuesday, September 12, 2023 - 11:03

I can’t count how many times during the past 20 years I’ve heard executives complain that their people aren’t enthusiastically participating in their lean program. Leaders lament that while the company has spent a small fortune to put everybody through continuous improvement training, hardly anybody submits ideas. The problem isn’t their employees; it’s a cultural problem and, therefore, a leadership problem.

These frustrated leaders often try to force employees to participate through incentives and quotas. A better strategy for leaders is taking responsibility and working to reduce two key cultural factors that keep employees from speaking up: fear and futility.

In an environment of fear and punishment, employees understandably protect themselves by staying quiet about opportunities for improvement, which comes at a great cost to the organization. How do we address this? Don’t just tell employees they should feel safe or be brave in the face of fear. Eliminating fear is crucial, as W. Edwards Deming said decades ago. We need to replace fear with psychological safety.

With psychological safety, the perceived level of risk for acts, such as admitting we don’t know how to do something, is situational and individual.

What is psychological safety?

Social scientist and writer Timothy R. Clark succinctly defines psychological safety as “a culture of rewarded vulnerability.”

A “vulnerable act” exposes a person to the risk of harm or loss. Basically, any interaction between two or more human beings can be vulnerable, some interactions more than others. A specific act might make a person vulnerable, to some degree, in a specific situation, such as disagreeing with a particular leader, admitting a mistake, or making a process improvement suggestion.

Unlike physical safety, where we might say a particular act is inherently risky for all (such as working up high without a safety harness), the perceived level of risk for acts, such as admitting we don’t know how to do something, is situational and individual.

Clark also says psychological safety is a social condition in which you feel:
• Included
• Safe to learn
• Safe to contribute
• Safe to challenge the status quo

...all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.

He dubs these four bullet points The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety. I highly recommend Clark’s book (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2020). As we progress to the fourth stage of psychological safety, everybody feels safe to challenge the status quo, which leads to a culture of continuous improvement. Reaching this pinnacle requires a foundation, in Stage 1, of feeling included, accepted, and respected.

How do leaders boost the feeling of psychological safety?

How do leaders cultivate the conditions in which employees feel safe enough to speak up and participate in continuous improvement? Clark argues that leaders need to: 1) model vulnerable acts; and 2) reward vulnerable acts.

For example, leaders must model the key behaviors they want to see, such as admitting that things aren’t perfect. Leaders can also model helpful behaviors by sharing an idea along with the words, “I might not be completely right, so let’s test our idea on a small scale and see.” When leaders model these vulnerable acts, some employees might choose to follow their lead.

When a person chooses to speak up, it isn’t a matter of courage or character; it’s a function of culture. The level of safety that’s felt by an employee is the end result of all of the interactions they’ve had with leaders and colleagues, past and present.

Leaders can ask employees to speak up, but more importantly they must actively and continually reward employees for doing so. I don’t mean financial rewards. It often starts with simply saying thank you when others point out a mistake or an opportunity for improvement. Leaders must then ensure that scientific improvement cycles follow.

Don’t replace fear with futility

If we don’t combine psychological safety with effective problem-solving, we’ll end up replacing fear with futility, where people start saying, “It’s safe enough to speak up, but it’s not worth the effort because nothing happens.”

When it’s safer and easier to use one’s voice, and when doing so leads to action and improvement, people are more likely to continue speaking up and participating in continuous improvement. Leaders replace fear and punishment with encouragement and positive reinforcement.

People who feel relatively high levels of psychological safety can participate fully in the entire PDSA cycle, whether it’s labeled as that, lean, kaizen, or A3 problem-solving.

• Plan: We feel safe identifying and speaking up about problems or opportunities for improvement.
• Do: We feel safe to candidly debate possible countermeasures, focusing on what ideas seem best rather than the position of who had them.
• Study: We feel safe to honestly evaluate the effect of the countermeasure without fear of being punished for failing or falling short.
• Adjust: We feel safe to admit the need to change course, if needed, instead of feeling pressured to justify and rationalize what had been done.

Psychological safety plus problem solving equals improvement

At Toyota, what’s required for somebody to pull the Andon Cord—something that happens hundreds of times a day in each of their plants? A feeling of psychological safety means that team members expect they won’t be punished for pointing out problems and potentially stopping the line.

Coupling this with effective problem-solving means they won’t be constantly pulling the Andon Cord for the same problem, which gets frustrating even if it triggers a nonpunitive response each time. The evidence seems clear that Toyota reduces both the fear factor and the futility factor.

In the book Toyota Culture (McGraw Hill, 2008), Jeff Liker (who has studied Toyota for decades) and Michael Hoseus (a former Toyota leader) write, “[Toyota believes] people must be treated fairly; they must feel psychologically and physically safe....” Learning from mistakes and continuous improvement more broadly requires mutual trust; as Liker and Hoseus write, “Without trust in their employers, employees are reluctant to admit to the existence of problems and learn that it is safest to hide them.”  

I’d predict that if you hire an experienced Toyota team member into a factory without this culture, they might start off pointing out problems out of habit. But they might quickly learn not to speak up—either because they get punished for doing so, or they learn it’s a waste of time in that setting. Again, our feeling of psychological safety is both individual and situational.

Stop blaming the employees

If your organization struggles to engage everybody in continuous improvement, stop blaming the employees. Instead, take a look at your culture and leadership behaviors and the current state of psychological safety. Ironically, many employees might feel it’s unsafe to discuss how unsafe they feel. Using validated, anonymous surveys can gauge the level of psychological safety and the variation across teams, which establishes a starting point for measurable and meaningful improvement.

Instead of investing more to train the frontline team members on problem-solving methods, spend more time educating and coaching leaders on the behaviors that are proven to build psychological safety. Starting at the top, leaders must model and reward vulnerable acts related to continuous improvement. Instead of blaming workers, change the management behaviors that change the culture. Participation and continuous improvement will be far more likely to materialize, and everybody wins.


About The Author

Mark Graban’s picture

Mark Graban

Mark Graban is an author, educator, podcaster, and speaker in lean and continuous improvement strategies through his company Constancy Inc. He is a senior advisor to the technology company KaiNexus, the founder of LeanBlog.org, and the author of Lean Hospitals, Healthcare Kaizen (with Joseph E. Swartz), both recipients of the Shingo Publication Award. Mark’s most recent books are Measures of Success and The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation.


So True!

Dear Mark,

Your article is so resoundingly true. I am very fortunate to work for a HC facility that has a fully developed Organizational Development department that attempts to walk with leadership at their pace. With that said, we face major challenges where bandwidth is at 'war' with time allotment toward human development. While I don't believe this will get much better in the near future - if ever - I believe we can have small wins along the way and your words continue to encourage.

Thank-you for your motivating piece!

Well Said

Thanks for a good article.

I'd ad one more element of safety: safe to try something and have it "fail"

If people are expected only to succeed every time they submit an improvement, they will avoid submitting ideas that might not work out.

Great point

Hi Jonathon - Yes, I agree. I tried to say as much in the article, but you stated it more clearly :-)

That's the need for Psychological Safety in the Study and Adjust phases of the PDSA cycle.

If leaders can't accept it when people try to improve and "fail" (fall short of desired improvement), then that will drive people to be very hesitant to try anything but the safest of improvements... 

Check out my new book

For a deeper dive into these themes of psychological safety and problem solving, please check out my latest book, "The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation" --  https://mistakesbook.com/

Getting Problem Solving to work


The problem of expensive training in problem solving (and Lean Six sigma) being imparted but not used suggested by you is very real.

However the solution is recognised explicitly and very comprehensively dealt in the Japanese TQM where the 3 componenets included in any training are - JIT (lean), TQC (Six Sigma) and Total Employee Invovlvement (TEI). It is emphasised that without TEI there is no improevment because intitating change involves risk. The barriers to Employee Involvement (i.e. factors that even cause exclusion) and ways to overcome them are included in the training formally.