Existing Culture vs. a New Manager


SI.com – Writers – The Bonus: Bobby Valentine's Super Terrific Happy Hour

As a lifelong baseball fan (especially as a kid), I found the above article interesting when I saw it yesterday. It's about former Rangers and Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who is now managing a team in the Japanese major leagues. He is trying to bring his American baseball style to Japan, namely, the idea of swinging for the fences.

“…he did something heretical: He didn't bunt. In Japan the sacrifice is sacred, a symbol of the team's predominance over the individual. Even power hitters bunt runners over. Valentine bunted only for a hit. In his first stint in Chiba his players had at times disobeyed him, bunting against his wishes and once practicing without him when he had given them a day off. 

If you're not a baseball fan, a “bunt” is when a batter purposely “sacrifices” himself by not taking a full swing, just tapping the ball in front of home plate, allowing himself to be thrown out at first so the baserunner(s) can advance, to be more likely to score a run (wikipedia explanation).

Now I'm not about to bring up the point you might expect…. lean, Japanese culture, blah blah blah. Lean is NOT strictly a Japanese system. Sure, it is strongly influenced by Toyota, who was strongly influenced by Deming, Ford, and other Westerners. Valentine was asked about the unauthorized bunting, going against his orders.

“I hear your fourth hitter, the catcher, bunts by himself.”

Valentine nods. “Nine times … because he wants to show his teammates he's unselfish.”

The thing that struck me was this: the manager (the boss) was giving the players a direct order — do not bunt, but they did anyway. Why is this? The culture was so strong that the culture (we must sacrifices ourselves) that a single strong-minded manager had trouble changing it.

Sound familiar?

Non-lean, mass production cultures are very hard to change. How many managers have gone into a plant and told people “don't build excess inventory” only to have people doing it anyway? The old culture said “keep the machines running” and that culture can be hard to change. Employees are supervisors might ignore direct orders because they think they're doing the right thing, according to the old culture.

Same thing seems to be true with the Japanese players. When I was at GM, the new NUMMI-trained manager (an American) was “foreign”, seemed to be speaking a different language, people didn't want to listen to him. That's Bobby Valentine, I guess.

One other thing stood out:

There is a Japanese phrase that Valentine likes to quote: Chisai kuni desu kara. It means “because it's a small country.” “People ask why there are no garbage cans,” he says, “and they answer, ‘because there's no litter.' Ask why there is no litter and they say, ‘because it's a small country.'” 

I guess this might be the same reason Lean/Toyota thinking so values conserving space? This was probably NOT something learned from Henry Ford.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. To paraphrase a bit, I’ve always held this simple notion to be true:

    Managers are only in charge to the degree that people let them be.

    Even as a parent of very obedient children I would assert that they obey as a matter of choice.

    Of course, good bosses and parents must be worthy of following, and never exercise unrighteous or unjust dominion over those they serve/lead.

    Much more to say…but I hope this point is taken as intended.


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