What Do Lean and Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas Have in Common?
Senior Value Engineer Luca Boi translates Lean lessons in culture building from Hollywood’s big screen to our everyday lives.

ne of my favorite Halloween and/or Christmas movies took on new meaning as I recently re-watched it with my son. Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, as odd as it may sound, gives valuable insights about the difficulties and rewards of implementing change.  

The universal challenge of implementing change 

Tim Burton’s now iconic story follows Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, on a mission to change culture. He accidentally discovers Christmas Town, experiences pure joy, and wants to take it back to his people.   

Back home, he tries to explain the joy and ambience of Christmas. But his culturally different citizens don’t understand the vision. And, as with any good movie plot, mayhem ensues; Christmas in Halloween Town doesn’t look anything like he experienced. Jack and the people of Halloween Town try their best to implement Christmas, but the culture of their town prevented them from fully grasping “Christmas.”  

Culture: It gets you every time 

This is a classic tale of good intentions. A leader has a great idea and excitedly brings it to the team in hope of change and progress. But it doesn’t go as planned. The effort is there, but what people struggle with is the culture.  

Culture is the embodiment of our organizational norms—it’s the way we think, behave, and work together. It’s influenced by our values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, and attitudes. It's a social construct dependent on the people who embody it. The norms of one cultural context—the patient population, team dynamics, location, organization, for example—are different every time. It’s this variation in local context that makes adapting someone else’s great idea challenging. 

To introduce a new change, you have to adapt your process to suit the culture. Here are three ways, influenced by Jack Skellington, to get you started. 

1. Respect reality: change takes time 

Most of the time when we learn of a successful improvement or change, we hear about the outcome—the result. But by focusing on the result, we leave out the struggle, the challenges, and the journey it took to achieve that outcome.  

A successful result is often shared in the form of a publication, which also leaves out the indirect actions of the dozens of individuals it took to achieve that success. It also can minimize the time needed to achieve change.  

When you encounter your next great idea, think realistically about your starting point. You are just getting started. Respect reality—change takes time. It is very difficult to shift not only behavior, but also processes. It doesn’t happen overnight and you won’t be successful alone.  

2. Design with people, not for people 

At a previous organization, my team had a “perfect plan” to implement visual management and huddle boards in every department. We created templates and then printed and posted them in each department. We thought our instructions and template should have made the huddle process easy and engaging.  

And yet, managers frequently called us to get an explanation of what they were supposed to do. As we rounded to see how the boards were used and how frequently they were updated, we soon realized that our perfect vision was flawed. It was what we wanted (system), not what they wanted (local teams).  

We took down those boards and invited each department to create their huddle board to reflect what was important to their team. They did. It was a huge success and soon, not only managers, but team members took ownership of those boards and personalized them in creative and meaningful ways.

People don’t want to be told what to do, they want to be part of the experience. They want to learn and do meaningful work. 

3. Listen to and incorporate local perspective 

It’s very easy to get change-related “tunnel vision.” In the example above, we were so focused and optimistic about our huddle boards that we ignored the warning signs all around us. In our enthusiasm to drive change, we failed to leverage the opinion of those around us.  

The teams familiar with the “local culture” would have provided insightful information on how to make the process work better. We didn’t take the time to listen and incorporate their input from the start—always a bad idea.  

An organizational culture is made of a series of interconnected relationships and collaborations, not a simple, straight approach. These factors should not only be acknowledged, but also leveraged to implement any change.  

Embrace the challenge of culture 

As Nightmare Before Christmas comes to an end, as an individual, Jack learns that it’s OK to be “Halloween King” and commits to be even better at it. The people of Halloween Town learn to experience Christmas on their own terms, with their own eyes, and start to understand the joy of it.  

We too can experience the joy of change when we respect the culture, meet people where they are, listen to, and incorporate the perspectives of others. We can re-commit to be better, to find new ways to deliver quality care, educate learners, start a clinical trial, and make individual changes.  

Nightmare Before Christmas is a reminder for me to value who we are as individuals, teams, and an organization. Learning from others and adopting better ways of doing things is important, but we should never lose track of our unique values and culture. Organizations—like people—are living organisms. We have an identity and respond best to change when we understand the purpose.  


Luca Boi

Senior Consultant, Process Improvement, Analytics, Planning, Strategy and Improvement, Brigham and Women's Hospital

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