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Three Steps Toward Lean Culture Change

by Erin Urban
June 3, 2014

Three Steps Toward Lean Culture Change

by Erin Urban
June 3, 2014 | Comments (3)

Culture change takes care, patience, a bottomless energy source, and an iron will to succeed. Oh, and let’s not forget the degree in psychology. Or maybe it just feels this way. The point is: culture change typically isn’t greeted with open arms unless there is a crisis to provide a sense of urgency.

Still, I’ve noticed there are a few “Do-Not-Pass-Go” items that must be a part of any successful lean culture change initiative.

Leadership Involvement

Rather, let’s say: Commitment. Here’s a fable for you: A hen and a pig were talking in the barnyard one day. The hen was so proud and talking on and on about how glad she was that she and the pig could help the farmer and his family by supplying them with ham and eggs for their breakfast. The pig, however, was less enthusiastic about it. He replied, 'That's easy for you to say; you are just involved. For me; it's a total commitment."

We hear the words “leadership involvement or engagement” (which can be confusing and ambiguous, even to leaders) and we don’t know what engagement means. Perhaps we are using the wrong word. Leadership commitment is a crucial element that, if missing, spells certain doom for your change initiative. Consciously or not; we follow leader examples. What we perceive of their actions often determines what we prioritize and how we behave. If your leadership team can’t demonstrate a commitment to change, neither will you. Why should you?

LeanCor has authored an excellent book called People that helps leaders understand what is expected of them when they hear: “We need you to be committed to continuous improvement.”

Leadership sets the tone, vision, expectations, and direction of the organization by demonstrating active participation, genuine interest, and transparency to the company. By conveying that something is important, change adoption rates increase and staff interest will be elevated. Just elevating the level of acknowledgement is over halfway to the solution.


Learning is not something that we can clap our hands together one day and say: “Well, that’s done!” Neither is continuous improvement. As da Vinci said: “Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” In other words, if there is no desire to learn, then all of the available education in the world will not make a difference. This is where leadership’s role in driving the change hand-in-hand with communicating the why behind the need to change is critical. If there is no explanation given of why the education or change is necessary, then the initiative just becomes waste in the minds of the staff. After all: things have been working ok so far, right? Simon Sinek discusses the importance of “why” in his Ted Talks: “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”.

Also, just presenting a concept once is a good way to pass time if you have plenty of time to spare, but it’s not an effective way to help people retain the information. Do your team members a favor and repeat lean concepts from different perspectives, ask them for their thoughts, and make certain that they participate in the learning. Active learning is the best way to retain information. Be open to learning new concepts yourself! People will naturally resist change even if the change is a glaringly positive one. So, start with the basics of ‘why’, principles of the change, and then move to the tools to get the change done. Wash and repeat.

Cultural Dynamics

These include things like morale, average employee perspective, maturity level/professional behavior, accepted participation level, business mindset, level of accountability, and at least 25 other key factors. Basically: if you want to change the culture, you must understand it first in order to grasp where one must begin in the education process. If there is a lack of accountability, then be prepared to coach and mentor on the subject. I’ve personally made the mistake of assuming that a culture was at a certain professional maturity level, only to wonder later why it took so long to make change happen.

Be prepared to suggest basic professional-level courses, even for management. Have your leaders previously benefitted from any formal professional education or did they receive the position without any training? This happens more than you think! At what leadership level do they perform? What is the communication like in the company: Good, Fair, Poor, Non-Existent? Are there any standards of work? What expectations, verbal and non-verbal, are set by management? Does your company promote the ‘fire-fighters’, or the team players? Again, we follow our leaders, so if the management teams exhibit poor leadership skills, staff performance will suffer and the culture change will be an uphill battle. In addition, interviewing and assessing tenured employees can be critical to your culture change as they are often unofficial leaders within their circle of influence.

Sometimes you have to dig down to foundational level concepts to ensure that your continuous improvement/Lean culture change is a success. Don’t be discouraged – what you are doing is critical for the company’s development and business health. Their future will be much brighter for your efforts.

Leadership involvement, education, cultural dynamics. Check, check, check. All of this sounds easy enough, right? Of course not. Paying attention to all of these things, let alone trying to change them, is challenging. But take a deep breath: just the fact that you’re aware a culture change is needed makes you light years ahead of everyone else. Step back and appreciate the current collective mental state to determine what lean concepts you must educate employees on first (with leadership present!) in order to take that next step forward.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  culture
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3 Comments | Post a Comment
Matt D June 03, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Great post!
Your ideas around Cultural Dynamics really resonated with me.  It's a leg of our lean transformation that honestly I don't think weve explored. Thanks for the insight!

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Aaron April 09, 2016

Great article, I would like some ideas on how to transform the culture/morale of a company to be able to get the lean program off the ground. What steps and method options are there ?

Reply »

Erin Urban April 28, 2016


I'm glad that you enjoyed the article and found value in the information. I'm happy to say that, several years later, I have many more insights to share in regards to ensuring a credible beginning to a continuous improvement program initiative.

As you probably already know: there are many factors that play into a solid C.I. program. Here's a few mistakes I've made that might help you avoid the same pitfalls during your journey.

1. Over-complicating the initiative / taking on too much too soon. I recently wrote an article on my webpage (uppsolutions.net) about how important it is to keep things simple - especially in the beginning.

2. Not ensuring that Leadership understands what C.I. is and their involvement. Top Tip here: make their involvement as easy as possible - this will give you a better chance that the leaders actually engage! Ask too much and typically they lose interest quickly. Most leaders will say "yes" to the question if the support the initiative - but they don't necessarily understand what 'support' means, looks like, or feels like.

3. The biggest role change is found in middle management, don't leave them till last - they get trained FIRST. This is where most of your significant roadblocks are found thanks to the 'comfort zone' and habit / tribal knowledge. This is also where most of your training time will be spent. 

4. The people that do the work, well - most are ready for a change and want to do a good job. We don't need to do a training blitz with everyone right from the start. If we give them the knowledge and the tools they need to succeed for each CI project, we are more effective and efficient with our time and training. They get to use the techniques right away.

It's important to connect with and educate your leaders (simplify the process for their engagement), introduce CI to the organization (bare bones, this is what it can do for them type of info), train middle management and address their concerns, and set up a CI steering committee with key stakeholders to feed the project pipeline with strategic business-significant issues so you can get started making a difference!

Good Luck and let me know if you have any questions!

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