Are We Cowboys or Not?


Fixing East-West clash challenging

Prof. Jeffrey Liker keynoted a Lean event in Oklahoma and is quoted as saying:

Maybe the cowboy and the samurai best illustrate the chasm between Eastern and Western corporate cultures, author Jeffrey Liker offered Thursday during the Southwestern Lean Conference.

The cowboy is identified as an iconoclast, the epitome of self reliance and going his own road, he said, while the samurai is all about serving the boss and working as part of the team.

“They're pretty different,” Liker, author of the “The Toyota Way” and other books about the company, said of the contrasting cultural views. “This is a big challenge for the West.”

What do you think about that? Are we incurable “cowboys” (and cowgirls) here in the West?

Last month, I wrote about some provocative words from Norman Bodek. Bodek says the “cowboy” thing is a myth perpetuated by management to keep employees from working together.

Anyway, I'm not trying to start a “Liker v Bodek” battle, but it's an interesting contrast in perspectives.

Liker made some other excellent points:

“When you have a quality problem, it's almost always a management problem,” Liker said.

This is true in factories or hospitals. Rather than blaming individuals, we have to look at the system and the processes that could have led to the error. Good reactions include error proofing, not just blaming or punishing people.

He also talked about leadership, again contrasting East v. West:

Managers under the lean manufacturing system must constantly adapt to change and need time to quietly analyze problems before choosing paths. Toyota also provides management mentors who guide their proteges directly for years at a time.

Managers who buy into the Toyota way understand the Western and Eastern contrasts more clearly and are able to bridge the two sides, Liker noted. For instance, the Western view sees the world as logical and even tamable, while the East believes the world is still partially concealed, threatening and something that forces personal adaptation.

What are your thoughts and experiences with this? Toyota is able to train Western managers and workers to work under their model and system… is this East v. West? Or is it like Dr. Deming said, “people will work under any system…”?

I'm by no means an expert on Japanese or Eastern culture… I do realize there are differences, but does talking about the differences give people in the West an excuse to say “we're not Japanese, so we can't do this”??

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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. US culture is more accurately not a “cowboy” culture but rather a “farmer” culture. Not as much romanticism but lots more of our forefathers were farmers than cowboys. So rather than focusing on the chasm between east and west / indvidual and group / manager and employee let’s look at some common ground. The farmer was (and to a much lesser degree some may still be) a master ate eliminating muda (waste). Have you ever heard of head cheese? There were no garbage disposals but they had slop buckets that got fed to the hogs. No piece of wood went to waste – if it was not used to build or repair something it was at least used as a source of energy. Animal “waste” was used as fertilizer for crops and crop “waste” as food for livestock. This lean aspect of our culture has been lost surprisingly quickly. Let’s hope that we can make changes in the lean direction as quickly.

    The evolution of US farming would be a rich case study in adapting to cheap energy. Maybe we can adapt to expensive energy as quickly. It is always amazing to see how much can be gained when we really focus on eliminating waste in all its forms. As the costs of various forms of waste change so does the low hanging fruit. The impact of substanially higher enery costs creates great opportunity for lean practioners.

  2. Mark/
    I think Prof. Liker misses the boat here. Cowboys and Samurai are a kind of lazy cultural stereotype that doesn’t stand up to any critical examination.
    For example, if you know anything about real cowboy life, it took a great deal of coordinated action and teamwork to drive a herd to market or even to brand a few cows. Furthermore, Samurai were hardly team players. They were trained to be detached and inaccessible – meaning you could hold their families hostage but they would not cave in to your demands.
    About the only thing valid re: Cowboys and Samurai is their geographic origins. Like Norman Bodek, I think the “cowboy/samurai” thing is a myth – but perpetrated by people who have very limited insight into organizational culture, what drives it and where the levers for changing it can be found.
    /Dr. Pete

  3. I tend to agree with Dr. Pete.
    Liker may have been oversimplifying the individual vs. group cultural stereotype between the West and Japan, but this is by no means a chasm or an impediment to lean.

    I also disagree with Bodek in as much as these behaviors are very real, if misnamed.

    You could say that U.S. culture is a pioneer culture, which in business means entrepreneurship while Japan has a longer history of craftsmanship, fishing and farming. There have been no meaningful geographic frontiers in Japan for about 200 years, while the US is barely over 200 years old…

    In any case, we should avoid easy stereotypes and the overuse of generalizations such as “it’s management” which are not very descriptive of a root cause.

  4. These general “cowboy and samurai” comments probably do more to generate discussion around lean than provide practical wisdom that can be applied.

    I am sure many of you reading this blog have seen lean transformations in a variety of cultures. I have seen plants in Asia that were some of the best, and visited some of the worst factories just down the street.

    I have interfaced with some Japanese companies where honor seemed to be held in higher regard than truth – stating the problem was fixed to avoid escalation of issues rather than acknowledging plans were falling behind. This indicates that there are some other cultural issues that Asian companies have that are barriers to true lean operation. Each culture brings different strengths and weaknesses that must be overcome.

    In my experience, the local plant culture driven by the leaders is a much more important factor than whether the business resides in an Eastern or Western company, or is driven by Eastern or Western geographical influence.


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