The Satir Change Model and Kaizen

Right before Christmas I crossed a write-up of Al Shalloway about Kanban being the integration of Deming, Ohno, Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints, Satir and Nonaka. At a similar time I finished Jerry Weinberg‘s most recent book Experiential Learning Volume 3 – Simulation. Jerry explains the Satir Change Model in such a great way, that I would like to elaborate a bit more on the relevance of the model particular for Kanban.

Status Quo

The status quo is the state that you are currently in. Everything is quite comfy, you don’t need to bother about things outside your personal experiences that could go wrong. You can rely on different givens, and everything just works out well for you. Weinberg describes this state as “everything being familiar and in balance”. The status quo is “the outcome of of a series of attempts to get all the outputs of the system under control”. But the balance in that outcome might come at a cost:

[That] balance may require various parts of the system to have an unequal role in maintaining that balance.

In his blog entry, Al Shalloway writes about people preferring to work in their comfort zone. I consider the comfort zone as the late status quo that you are working in. You can lean back, do business as usual, and don’t have to cope with such things as foreign elements that kick you out of your comfort zone.

Foreign Elements

As Weinberg describes it, “change takes place in an unending series of cycles”. What causes such a cycle to start changing behavior is a foreign element. That foreign element is not particularly a sudden crisis, but rather the “sudden realization that things have been very unhealthy”. Or to put in Weinberg’s words from his book Secrets of Consulting:

It may look like a crisis, but it’s only the end of an illusion.

(Rhonda’s First Revelation on page 149)

Such a foreign element is out of control of the current system. That’s why it’s a foreign element.

There are many things that could yield a foreign element. The death of a person near to you is the beginning of the realization that something (or someone) has to step in that gap that will be created there. The missed deadline in your project plan might cause you to run around like headless chickens asking everyone to work overtime to please the customer by appearing to work. And finally, the introduction of transparency in terms of a visualization on a Kanban board can lead to a foreign element that causes programmers to start helping out at the perceived testing bottleneck.

Yes, that’s right. The introduction of a the first practice in Kanban – visualize your workflow – alone may lead to an foreign element. In the end, Kanban claims to be an evolutionary change method. Taking Weinberg’s picture from before – “change is an unending series of cycles” – it is inherent to Kanban that it introduces a foreign element for the first cycle to begin. Or stated in another way: Whatever you observe, gets changed – a problem every anthropologist is aware of.


What happens in the chaos stage of the Satir Change Model is merely the try to cope with the foreign element. Depending on the foreign element, people in the system might reject the foreign element to cope with it, ignore it, hide form it, or actively fight it. What characterizes the chaos stage in the Satir Change Model is “that predictions no longer work”, “old expectations are not fulfilled”. “The Old-Status-Quo system has been disrupted.”

As a reaction on this, people might become scared, hiding from the foreign element, neglecting it, deny it, or deflect it – effectively playing the Hot Potato game. Weinberg describes that “people try random
behavior, or try reverting to even earlier behavior patterns, perhaps from childhood.” What’s remarkable about people in the chaos stage is that their thinking ability might be reduced since they will argue from an emotional viewpoint, not from a rationale one. In the end, fear, is an emotion, right?

More interesting, people might reject the foreign element so much, that they end up at Old-Status-Quo behavior. They might inflict the element to someone else, or might cope with it in a different manner only to get back to their comfort zone. In the end, it’s very comfy there.

To get back on my earlier example of the Kanban board, the board should be hard to reject. In the end, it tells the story of the old process. It makes things transparent. It will help you and your team overcome the temptation to revert to your Old-Status-Quo. That does not mean that Kanban inherently will lead to better changes, or lead to changes at all. That means, Kanban implemented well will make the rejection of foreign elements as they occur hard. That might also mean that Kanban implemented badly will lead to worse behavior than your current status quo. My gut feeling tells me that the recent addition of leadership to the Kanban practices yields from enough bad Kanban implementations because it needs leadership to help the team overcome the tendency to reject the foreign element they see and hide from on their boards. Kanban implemented well also means to nurture a culture of change.

Integration and Practice

During the stage of integration and practice, people will try various things to cope with the new foreign element. They will try out new things to overcome the short-comings of their old predictions. While productivity might have sunk during the chaos stage, in the integration and practice stage it will start to fluctuate. People will need a lot of slack-time to try out new things, and overcome a certain hump of pain. Some things will turn out to be bad ideas, others will work greatly.

Weinberg writes about the concept of a “transforming idea” that “AHA!”-moment where you stand up and say, “I learned something.” Weinberg describes that “just as the foreign element marks the beginning of chaos, the transforming idea marks its end.” When you had your transforming idea, you start to practice over and over to become even better at what you were doing. Of course, all along this process, you might find yourself facing the foreign element that your transforming idea was not that transforming in the end, does not scale, or leads to sub-optimal results. Then you might fall back into the chaos stage, and start to try new things. You might also find yourself getting back to the Old-Status-Quo. But a change to a higher potential of productivity needs the transforming idea and a certain time of practicing it. The transformation and the practicing turns a “good idea” into a great one. “here is where we can create an environment to perfect a good idea, or reject one that turns out to be bad – rather than demanding immediate perfection.”

Reflecting back on Kanban, it’s mandatory to establish a pull system that will create just enough slack-time to perfect your good idea, or reject it. The pull system creates the environment that helps you perfect the transforming idea, or play around with it enough to be able to reject it.

New Status Quo

At the end of the integration and practice stage stands a new stage of comfy feelings, where your new predictions will work. We will have reached a new comfort zone, a new status quo. Of course, just until you realize the next foreign element, and the cycle starts anew.


As you can see, Kanban makes use of the Satir Change Model a lot. Its practices and principles help to deal with foreign elements. For example, I left out the discussion on the Kaizen culture – a culture of small changes. Kaizen helps to cope more easily with foreign elements – foreign elements that are small enough though. It does not prevent you from Kaikaku – larger changes – when you start to realize larger foreign elements.

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4 thoughts on “The Satir Change Model and Kaizen”

  1. Great post Markus – a great application of the Satir Change Model in a current software development context.

    You touched on an interesting point when teams are forced into Chaos from an unexpected Foreign Element, but as I understand it a Foreign Element can also be planned, as in a planned process change (kaizen / kaikaku) or office relocation.

    IMO, having an understanding of the Satir Change Model can help you plan when to introduce the Foreign Element – for example, ideally you wouldn’t introduce it when the team is already in chaos as it would just push them further into a chaos giving them a greater “hole” to climb out of after the Transforming Idea.

    I would love to see an example of the real pattern of performance as a team or person moves through the change model as opposed to standard “clean” graph usually presented. As you mention, the team may need a different Transforming Idea in the Integration & Practice stage, or a series of unexpected Foreign Elements in quick succession pushing the team further & further into Chaos.

    Looking back on my time in the military (albeit brief) I can see how we were pushed further & further into Chaos in order to prepare us for life in the field – the New Status Quo was us being battle ready.

    Thanks for sharing Markus – really useful & thought provoking post.


  2. Hi Markus,

    when I read your entry, I was constantly thinking that I don’t agree with your first assumption.

    The status quo is the state that you are currently in. Everything is quite comfy, you don’t need to bother about things outside your personal experiences that could go wrong.

    What about people on whom this doesn’t apply most of the time? Actually these two sentences made me think about the last two years a lot. I realized that I worked way out of my comfort zone for most of the time. When I say most, I don’t mean just above 50% but merely 90% to 99% by guess. Yes, I like challenges but even if I’ve seen more ice-cold water in the last two years I wouldn’t dare call that comforting. How does the model you describe apply to this? If it does and I don’t see a certain aspect I would be interested! And if it doesn’t, what’s beyond that model?

    1. The way Virginia Satir picked the name of the foreign element is crucial here, I think. The foreign element is an element out of control of the current system. That for example holds for the United State of America when the Pearl Harbor was attacked, the planes landing in the world trade center on September 11th 2001, and for the Japanese atomic power plant industry when the tsunami hit the coast two years ago. These elements were out of control of the systems at the current time – or beyond imagination of the people involved.

      Those events led to a crisis. And remember that the beginning of a crisis is merely the end of an illusion. The crucial part here is that the foreign element is a sudden realization that things have been out of balance for a too long amount of time.

      For the situation that you describe, I would start to think about it in one of these two ways:
      1) You made a personal choice to get out of your comfort zone. It was your choice in the past two year, so it was not a foreign element.
      2) There is more than the Satir Change model and the foreign element that may lead to an uncomfy feeling.

      For a more in-depth discussion, I urge you to read Weinberg’s Quality Software Management Volume 4 or his Experiential Learning Volume 3 book. He describes it well better than me, and I don’t dare to cite even more out of the two books here.

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