Lean in and change your mind about change

A butterfly newly emerged from a chrysalis
Change is a sensitive subject. Great if it’s change you want to have happen and rubbish if it isn’t. In either circumstance Sonya Johnston from Universities Scotland suggests good sources of support, information and guidance can be helpful as well as inspiring.

On 15 March Universities Scotland hosted the first of 2017’s bi-annual meetings for the Organisational Staff Development Forum Scotland (OSDFS). One of the guest speakers was Nicola Cairns from the business improvement team at the University of Strathclyde. Nicola addressed the group on ‘Measuring the Benefits and Impact of your Programmes in Higher Education’.

As part of continuous improvement methodology this work is likely to resonate with the HE professionals attending the OSDFS event who embrace change on a daily basis. Lean in HE and its translation into lean thinking for leaders embodies an approach which supports and encourages innovative ways of meeting the challenge to identify and create opportunities for developing both people and businesses.

These professionals are also hugely enthusiastic about seeking development and change, in terms of professional growth, for themselves. That openness is pivotal to finding new ways forward.

Some change can be welcome

We’re told none of us likes change but really that’s not true is it? Change we feel we are in control of or we regard as ‘good’ for us can be really enjoyable. Changes that get us what we want, such as new clothes, a holiday, discovering new music, books or restaurants or having a new addition to the family both people and pets!

So what kind of change don’t we take to? Advanced-Workplace‘s (AWA) managing director Andrew Mawson says: ”When it comes to change which is imposed on us or which we perceive at first sight as being less beneficial to us than keeping things the same, then we tend to be less enthusiastic.” Obvious? Probably. Then why do we struggle so much with it?

“Be part of the change. Adopt an attitude of anticipation and excitement. Welcome change as an opportunity. Be an influencer and driver of change.”

When things change around us we can feel like we are being knocked sideways and things are no longer in our control.

So getting our heads out of a reactive way of thinking (fear, denial, resistance) and into one where we consider the facts, look for the way forward and make decisions accordingly, is a useful strategy to develop. This is the key to managing change generally, but particularly in the workplace if we have clear daily tasks for which we are still responsible.

That isn’t to say that emotional reactions aren’t valid, normal and useful, they are, and people all react differently. But being stuck in a single mode doesn’t help us to navigate a way forward. This is true on a personal, work or wider stage. When we are stuck in reactive ‘fear-denial-blame’ mode we limit our ability to see the bigger picture and more critically, to perceive the possible benefits and opportunities available to us. That doesn’t mean every change that comes our way is inherently good or designed for our personal benefit but in each situation we have a choice about how we respond to the change when it comes along.

A great example of where this has worked well for some universities has been via the adoption of lean systems management. Attending the Lean in HE International conference hosted at the University of Stirling in November 2016 I found their success and enthusiasm incredibly inspiring. During the conference, organisational, HR and business development managers presented case studies and workshops to demonstrate how their adoption of the lean approach had worked. Characterised by energising, positive, effective, agile and creative thinking, they had created practical solutions to a range of challenges.

Several universities around the UK are now leading the field in the application of these methods and the outcomes are speaking for themselves. Not only are the results practical and measurable but the shift in thinking lends itself to flexible problem solving in other areas. The institutions involved are so energised by these developments they have also sought to share the practice across the sector internationally, manifesting those intentions via the Lean HE forum.

 Read how other institutions are working with lean


For me, the lean conference summed up the difference between: meeting challenges and a changing landscape with a positive attitude, or reacting and getting stuck in a fear or denial response. Stepping up to change driven by forces beyond their control, these people were not only finding new ways of working more effectively and efficiently but having fun and really enjoying change in the process.

That’s the potential of the lean way. They were still in unknown territory, a changing landscape that was difficult and scary at times but they had found the courage and the skills to ‘ride the wave’ and not be overwhelmed or stymied by those challenges. In the LinkedIn article, 10 tips for dealing with change positively in your workplace the author, Ban Weston, sums this up succinctly: “Change can be frightening and disruptive. However, with the right attitude, outlook and actions, you can find opportunities in that change.”

How to manage change

There are lots of things we can do for ourselves to support a positive, skilled approach for dealing with change. LinkedIn suggests this for starters:

1. Reduce stress and anxiety
2. Have a sense of meaning
3. Continue to do your work and see the big picture
4. Be part of the change. Adopt an attitude of anticipation and excitement. Welcome change as an opportunity. Be an influencer and driver of change. See the positive in the way forward.

For the benefit of yourself, your family and your work colleagues I’d like to add point five, “Look after your health, energy and wellbeing”. This is part of mindfulness, which is becoming increasingly recognised within the workplace. Together these things help to deliver an effective platform for managing change successfully.

At Universities Scotland we have an ongoing programme of organisational and staff development and continuous improvement underway. We are currently working towards enhancing our operational facilities as well as developing new income streams, finding new office colocation partners and providing development opportunities for staff. Along with the business improvement programme at Universities UK, 2017 is a busy year for delivering change outcomes!


Sonya Johnston
Sonya is head of operational services for Universities Scotland. Before joining US she worked in the sustainable energy sector and was a research assistant in cultural and language studies.