Culture is often indicated as one of the most important aspects of the Lean journey towards perfection. At the same time, culture seems to be one of the most elusive aspects. Norms, values, convictions, morals, attitude, behavior, habits and leadership are examples of themes that are discussed when we talk about culture. Some posts and articles also discuss the importance of national or local culture, and question whether Lean is not too much interconnected with Japanese culture to become a success outside of Japan. Already in 1983, a Dutch article about kanban by Wortmann and Durlinger concluded that it would not be possible to fully implement kanban in the Netherlands due to cultural differences related to moral, employee involvement and team awareness. Still, it is my own experience that organizations that are seriously following the Lean road create such strong cultures of their own, that in the end these organizational cultures transcend national or local cultures.
Lean Culture is Concrete
Culture is often described as something elusive, but im my humble opinion, above all, this is due to the way in which organizations themselves deal with this phenomenon. Defining elements like attitude, behavior and habits often are not addressed concretely by organizations, and mostly remain very vague and general. What does it all really mean in day-to-day operation that we are customer oriented, respect employees or are a reliable partner?
But the culture in a truly Lean organization is far from being vague. Just to name a few (non-exhaustive) examples related to elements typically seen as defining the concept of culture:
- Norms and Values: Quality first in everything we do; respect for customers, employees, business partners, the environment, products and the organization; transparency in whatever we do; focus on long-term success.
- Way-of-Thinking: Facts you will find on the shop floor; problems are opportunities to improve; a standard is a hypothesis; autonomy is the basis for intrinsic motivation; consistency creates confidence and trust; the next one in the value stream is the customer; striving for perfection has no end; together everyone achieves more; first stabilize, then improve.
- Principles and Rules: Don’t accept, make and send waste; stop at the first defect; make products flow continuously; pull product through the process; standardize and visualize these.
- Rituals: Habits (ways-of-working) are standardized. This goes for the primary process (like floor layout and work procedures), the management process (like morning markets, escalation paths and quick response meetings, planning processes) as well as the improvement process (methods and techniques like VSM, A3, FTA, etc.).
- Attitude and Behavior: Perseverance, involvement of the associates in setting up and improving their own work; problems are exposed instead of hidden away; collectively looking for causes on the shop floor; participative leadership and coaching.
- Symbols and Objects: Incontrovertible in Lean is the omnipresent visualization. Just think of 5S, autonomous maintenance indications, kanban cards, FIFO-lanes, team performance boards, standardized work, kamishibai boards, and so on. But also think of obeya’s and the visual absence of hierarchy in company uniforms and reserved parking spots for the management.
- Language and Stories: Of course, there is a specific Lean lingo and many Lean methods, techniques and tools are even indicated with a Japanese word. This can of course agitate you, but often is an efficient way to indicate a certain concept. Furthermore, it also is a clear expression of the reigning culture. Typical Lean stories find their way through the organization, for instance, via Kaizen Cards and Yokoten.
Lean Culture: Interconnected Whole
Culture, as indicated above, is often described as the sum of various elements. However, it especially is the coherence and internal consistency between these elements that make a culture a strong culture. And the Lean culture is a culture that pre-eminently excels in coherence.
Norms and values, together with mental models and ways-of-thinking, reveal oneself in principles, rules and regulations. Principles, rules and regulations in their turn lead to the rituals that are central to any culture. And through these rituals, attitude and behavior of all associates are shaped and that in their turn further strengthen the rituals or habits. Specific symbols and objects and even language elements are used during these rituals that are specific to and a very visual aspect of a Lean organization.
Just think about how a value like respect for the customer, and the way-of-thinking that the next one in the value stream is a customer expresses itself in the Lean agade that no waste will be accepted, made or sent. This principle then leads to rituals like, for instance, self-inspection, the use of andons, poka yokes and auto-quality matrices in the case of quality, and to the pull system when we speak of confining and eliminating overproduction.
These rituals – based on basic values like transparency and involvement, and the ways-of-thinking that consistency creates confidence and visualization enables involvement – are standardized and visualized.
Because Lean culture is such a strongly interconnected and internally consistent whole, Lean culture is hard if not impossible to copy even if one wanted to (see one of my earlier posts on copying Lean).
Lean Culture Arises
Often people speak about creating a Lean culture as if it were a separate activity or work stream, in the Netherlands sometimes indicated as the “undercurrent”. My experience, however, has taught me that culture is not a separate entity from what Lean as a whole is. There is no “under- and upper-current”; in Lean they are one and the same.
Therefore, culture should not be seen as a separate element on the Lean journey, but as an inseparable aspect. When the Lean vision, norms and values are carried through consistently, a Lean culture will arise; it is inherent to what Lean ís.
Because of this, I also don’t believe in specific and sometimes separate (or parallel) initiatives aimed at creating a Lean culture. A right approach to Lean naturally will lead to a Lean culture. So: “act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you act” (G.W. Crane).
Lean culture is not elusive and vague. No, Lean culture is concrete, tangible and practical. And Lean culture is a culture that excels in coherence and internal consistency par excellence. Lastly, culture cannot be separated (and addressed separately) from what Lean actually ís. Lean culture often transcends local culture. Not for nothing, there are ample examples of (parts of) Lean organizations in a multitude of regions, countries and cultures. When the local culture dominates the company culture, this usually is a symptom of a (still) deficient development of Lean within the organization. But this certainly is not only a question of culture. As it is sometimes aptly put: “you can’t think your way into a new way of acting; you have to act your way into a new way of thinking” (M. Fuller)!