How to Get Started with a Lean Culture?


    Here's another Lean Blog reader question from Joe, who writes:

    Last year I was part of an ERP implementation team at our company, and while part of that I became interested in lean manufacturing. For reference I manage our Field Service group and am a mechanical engineer by trade with some manufacturing experience.

    In any case this opportunity created exposure to all parts of the business. In the middle of this project I read the Toyota Culture book which bascially changed my perspective on business and how to treat people. There are a number of us here that are interested in pursuing a culture of continuous improvement based on many of the core values we read in the Toyota Way.

    However, we are having difficulty with the question of “How do you get started on this culture transformation?”. I was thinking this would be a beneficial discussion for those out there trying to figure out how to get started as there is a lot of information and a lot of opinions.

    It is my suggestion to our production group to start working on lean projects, go to the shop floor and spend time with our group leaders, begin a concentrated effort on training people (both how to do their jobs, set expectations and also how to act as a problem solving team) as opposed to figuring out our future vision for a culture. Most importantly, I am focusing on how we treat people being at the core.

    We have been a family owned, private company since 1892 and we certainly have a culture in place. We obviously have some cultural strengths, but as you can imagine 117 years also brings with it some cultural non-strengths. So, I am most interested in a discussion on “How do you get started…or what are some of the pros/cons of the different approaches.”

    There are probably no easy answers to this… in fact, whole books have been written on Lean Culture including:

    What do you think? Click “comments” to share your thoughts for Joe and the other readers…

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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. Altering culture from the bottom up or out is going to be problematic. Until your senior executives decide to…

      a) embrace & become cheerleaders for the effort

      b) fund the transformation with money & time, and

      c) place the transformation first among equals with cost & schedule

      …you and your coworkers may face some frustrating times.

      Still, culture transformation can sometimes start from a series of small victories developed by teams seeking to improve things.

      So, get a small group together. Pick a focus area, a project or a repetitive problem. Carefully define the problem or desired change (from X to Y). Gather some data about the process. Study, brainstorm and pilot a solution. Examine the results from the pilot initiative. Have a knowledgeable person help you with tools, terms, techniques & metrics just as you need them. Alter the pilot until it appears to deliver meaningful, cost-effective improvement.

      Roll the change into production and continue to measure its performance.

      Rinse, repeat and do it that way the rest of your life!:-)

    2. 117 year old, family run business. That’s a tall mountain to climb! Joe, I’ve worked for 3 family owned businesses and in each one the culture was tightly intertwined with the personality of the family.

      I’d offer two things. First, to be successful, you will need a prominent family member to embrace a new way of managing. You didn’t say how many generations of the family are in the business, but I’d say the current eldest generation is unlikely to be torch bearer. The champion should probably emerge from the generation that will next assume the reins from the current eldest generation. That next-in-line generation may have the best motivation to adopt a new way of working that can propel the company to greater heights during their prime years as leaders.

      Second, have a strong support system for the leaders as they begin the change. Assuming that the current management style is, shall we say, distinct from the lean approach, it will take a lot of practice and stick-to-it-ive-ness to make the transition. (This of course is true of any organization.) In my work with leaders, I’ve found that their management styles are deeply engrained and changing their style is like having to learn to breath a new way–something so natural and unconscious that now becomes unnatural and ackward. Leader standard work and small group lessons-learned sessions are two tools that may fit here. Also, in your situation, any family disfunction that is carried into the business could inhibit the change. Surfacing and addressing the issues–often long simmering, deep seated problems–will be essential to making the transformation.

    3. “You can act your way into a new way of thinking much faster than you can think your way into a new way of acting.” – David Mann, author of Creating a Lean Culture, shared during discussions on this topic.
      Your comments are right on about Doing versus (spending too much time) Planning though Dale’s insights are powerful. As in many situations – planning is everything, but plans are nothing. Suggesting that it is important to have a strategy but with the awareness the complexities and dynamics of family and biz will require even the best plan to be agile and responsive.
      Smarter people than I have defined an organization’s culture as “how we do things around here” including the explicit and implicit rules of engagement as well as stories from local historians – real and embellished – which drive behaviors.
      This is a great question you raise Joe. Just your awareness speaks volumes toward your future success. When we think about where to start lean technical change, most would say start closest to the customer and work up-stream (like value stream maps should be drawn – first with pencil).
      Some of the same folks might suggest that culture change should start, continue, and end in a training room. But, this is batch thinking as well as counter to the organic, engaging, and high involvement practices of lean. Sure, pull them together to give folks a lean introduction and tell them why you are doing what you are doing (and hopefully some reassurance this not a job elimination process). Keep large batch far-away-from-the-process training sessions to a minimum because information, like inventory, should be Just In Time (JIT) at the Point Of Use (POU). So you are right on when you think of training in ways to connect to people’s jobs, expectations, and problem-solving – at the processes where they work, solving problems faced each day.
      Culture change is not something to work on separate from technical change. One of the common mistakes many of us initially made with World Class Management, and other pick-a-tool systems, was to put teams together for the sake of teams without clear problems to solve and deliverable results sustained through engagement, leadership, and discipline. Improvements must matter to those involved.
      Anonymous has solid points about needing upper level alignment and support. The small victories direction is also valid. You will want to be a catalyst influencing up, down, any way you can think of – 360*. Choose some wins that can begin success storytelling (have a process for this to supplement the grapevine) and build momentum. Later, pull the naysayers into your process improvements (They will become your biggest cheerleaders and they have credibility in the culture when they convert.) but initially, engage some positive formal as well as informal leaders with whom you can achieve real results.
      Don’t let improvements die on the vine or people will perceive efforts as program-of-the-month (and bury their head in the sand until it passes over). Sustain, sustain, and sustain then culture will change.

    4. The posted comments to the “Lean culture” question are great. Hang on to them – the wisdom communicated is priceless.

      The following may help as well:

      Lean culture must be driven from the top but doing so does not have to be difficult for your organization’s leadership. The hard work takes place in the middle of the organization. The leaders at the top, the managers in the middle, and those on the front lines, all need to see the usefulness of doing things in a new way. The leaders at the top can clear some space, but it’s up to key individuals in the middle to work this out. Any changes you make early in the effort will be judged based on that “usefulness” criteria. In other words, if the early requirements of your effort are seen as a burden rather than helpful, it will make things much more difficult.

      So here’s an approach to make sure your early activities gain traction fast:
      1) whoever your first participants are – find out what they struggle with today and what they would like to see change
      2) craft an activity that and solves some of the real problems they identified. Carry-out the activity without causing too much disruption to their daily work.
      3) involve those who do the work in getting the problems resolved
      4) do not try to change too much too soon
      5) work through your first activities until you see those who have been impacted by them appreciate the results. This will plant the seed that the new direction just might hold promise for all involved.

      Good news spreads. Accomplishing the above will have your efforts off to a good start.

    5. This is a great base for implementing Lean – famely ovned companies have the preveledge to to be able think long terme. If you want to effect culture, you have to switch focus from tools, organisationel structure and other Lean stuff, to people and their habbits. If you can get people in your organisation to behave like Stephen Covey’s 7 habbits, your are very likely to accelerate and succed with your Lean transformation. Lean and Covey’s goes so nice together.


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