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How Do I Change the Culture?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I come from a company quite advanced in lean and I’ve joined a new firm as technical director. I’d like to apply lean concepts to the way we invest, but every one tells me I’d have to change the entire culture of the place, which I find daunting. Is that really the case? Any advice on culture change?

I think that it’s time to own up to a daily irony in my work. My background is in cognitive psychology and sociology of knowledge. This is how I got involved with studying the Toyota Production System (TPS) and its translations for the past 17 years. Now, when I’m at the Gemba, I argue with plant managers about how they use their people and their machinery, about why technical processes perform no better than that in uptime and quality, and more generally about their industrial vision. They respond that I should understand more about their company’s culture and how to get people to change, and to listen more to their specificities and unique history. The ironic beauty of it is that we keep exchanging our incompetences.

In general, I’m reluctant to discuss culture because I find that the less people know of a topic, the more their ideas are set and difficult to discuss (this is not surprising: the cognitive investment in knowing more of a topic to go beyond one’s prejudices is high for little initial payoff). Most managers tend to have very clear and simple ideas about culture, a topic I find as difficult as it is confusing. So, I usually skirt the issue and go back to discussing people, products and processes. Please bear with me as I break this personal rule, and try to answer more deeply your question about culture. You’re likely to be somewhat surprised by my position.

Culture is a slippery notion because it tends to be all-encompassing: everything is about culture. Typically, culture blends together values, beliefs, practices and artifacts. Culture can also be seen as norms and relationships. Culture is national, ethnic, professional, company-wide, you name it. Culture can also imply good taste in fine arts, or that you know your wines. Not only is culture a very vast word, each of its components is equally hard to define operationally: what are values? Or beliefs? Or norms? Not surprisingly, anything can be explained by “culture” in some shape or form.

And yet, for all its pervasiveness, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly the real influence of culture. Research and practice show that culture has less effect than:

  • Unique personalities
  • Strong leadership
  • Uniformity of practices
  • Specific technologies
  • Reactions to striking events

And, by and large, this other loosely defined concept that is “human nature” (talking apes with a bias for tools). Overall, the research shows that culture does have a statistically significant impact but only explains a small part of the variance – in any given situation, one of the other factors tends to overwhelmingly explain what happened. Oddly, for a sociologist (and I still see myself as such), I consider culture as an outcome variable, and look for inputs in terms of people, leadership, tools, investment, and events. Yes, the argument can be made that tolerance and reaction to these five factors is cultural, and I agree with that, but this line of thinking quickly becomes circular. So, before we get deeper in discussing culture proper I’d suggest you break down your problem in terms of:

  1. Who do you have to convince of what?
  2. Who has strong leadership and which way do they want to take the company?
  3. What are the basic investment cycles and practices in your company (e.g. do we design cells based on parts flow or do we purchase machines that we then put next to each other to build a cell)?
  4. What are the key technologies and how far from world class are you?
  5. What near past events and near future trends will affect your investments?

Now, let’s tackle culture. Most people define culture as a shared set of perceptions, beliefs, values, behaviors and artifacts within a specific group. (Full disclosure: I don’t, as I see culture as a set of theories, relationships and tools evolved by any social group, but for argument’s sake let’s take the usual definition).

Values are mostly expressed in terms of what is an acceptable goal and what is not, and what is an acceptable mean of reaching this goal. Yesterday evening I was visiting a large industrial center essentially built around one huge piece of equipment, with conveyors, and people organized willy-nilly around it. I pointed out that one lady had to repeatedly stand on her toes to grab a box of parts and then bend low to place it on a moving cart. The site managers smiled and quipped that they should have a policy to only hire men. Now, I can take a joke as well as the next guy, but this reflects a divergence of values. I value people’s health more than the concentration of capital, and I value access to work more than the ease of equipment design and use. This does not make me a better person, and holding these values doesn’t necessarily make me any better at putting them in practice, but we are talking about values in terms of goals and means.

Beliefs mostly express themselves in terms of causal relationships (if… then), and since most people are action oriented it shows up in how they go about doing things. For instance, early on this week, I visited a factory that is quite advanced in its kaizen practice, and that has hired a new plant manager from the automotive industry. One of the first things he did was to create visual boards in each workshop with a daily control of cost, quality, delivery, safety variances (these were tracked daily before, but the board became a central part of his management). Now, there is nothing wrong with this. However, he was puzzled when I pointed out that, as an operator, what I’d see every morning is my management team turning their collective backs on me in order to focus on a discussion around numbers. In effect, rather than bring quantified analysis at the machine level to teach operators to better understand their job and run the equipment, the new plant manager brought managing-by-numbers down to the shop floor. In this case, we’re seeing different beliefs about how to get results: (A) put pressure on managers to solve all problems to hit the numbers daily versus (B) work with operators at their workstations to learn with them how to improve the process and eliminate waste. There are starker examples of different beliefs (batch versus single-piece-flow, for instance), but this instance is interesting because it’s easy to confuse one with the other: both beliefs are similar yet very different. Furthermore, I am confident that we share the same values with the new plant manager: we agree on goals and means. We have different beliefs about how to get there, because we have a different mental model of what creates the outcomes (pressure on daily problem solving vs. relentlessly teaching kaizen).

Behavior is all about what behavior is acceptable or not – ranging from exemplary to offensive. For instance if we go back to yesterday’s Gemba visit my “problems first” behavior (pointing out problems) was felt to be aggressive and my attempts at doing this with humor were felt to be disparaging and disrespectful. On other gembas, where we have a strong working relationships, pointing out problems is expected (when I don’t, they wonder what’s wrong with me), and a kidding style is de rigueur to continue to reinforce relationships where we can tackle our deepest problems (usually, this means owning up to our own mistakes) and still not take it too seriously and remain good friends. The same behavior will be experienced as positive for the latter (we enjoy working together because we confront difficult challenges good-naturedly) and offensive to the former (arrogant and disrespectful). To follow our second case, the plant manager coming from the automotive industry I mentioned previously is perfectly charming, but has a way of expressing himself in strong clear terms on the issues he feels he has something to say (I’m not saying that he talks and doesn’t listen; he’s actually a good listener and does leave people room). The local culture however, is more about hemming and hawing, and finally coming up with an outrageous statement as an icebreaker until they start really discussing the topic in fits and starts. As a result, the new guy tends to interpret their reactions as agreement, whereas all they’re doing is bowing to the strength of the argument, but not necessarily in agreement. As he’s new, he doesn’t yet realize that the people with the established relationship then meet again without him, to reopen and address the issue in their “normal way”. Again, there is no right and wrong (the new guy’s communication style is definitely “better”), but accepted behavior and transgressive behavior.

Artifacts are the objects and tools a group of people use casually to go about their business. Back at the Gemba, the factory I just mentioned used to use one artifact to run all its scheduling: the MRP. As they progressed in lean, they started using Excel leveled production plans and pull system with kanbans for high runners. Then they set up a different system for to prepare advanced stock for promotions (with a specific location in the warehouse). They then realized they had to deal with some products where demand was infrequent, but in greater quantities than they could produce daily, so they invented another storage and scheduling system. They’re currently experimenting with yet another scheduling system to level seasonality of a range of their products; they still the MRP with the rest of items. Each of these scheduling systems is, in fact, scheduling artifacts. The newcomer will find dealing these artifacts difficult because he values integration (one integrated system is a good means to delivering to customers), he believes in virtuoso use of the MRP, and doesn’t have the knowledge and experience to master these different scheduling artifacts. Again, artifacts are not right or wrong they have purposes and uses. In lean the purpose of the artifact is often misunderstood, leading to very, very confused behavior.

Finally, and very oddly, all the above influence perception. When the manager of the large industrial site doesn’t see what I’m pointing at in terms of poor ergonomics, he doesn’t see and ignore me, he literally doesn’t see. Groups as a whole will agree on what they look at, and what they don’t. 5S, for instance, is a great tool to reveal what people look at and what they simply won’t see. In extreme cases, people might refuse to look because what they might see goes against their values, or dismiss what they see because it contradicts their beliefs, but perception is probably the easiest cultural factor to change, as it can easily be done by strong leadership. “Human nature” is such that the rest of the tribe will look in the same direction as its leader, so when the top dog starts looking at something, every one else will pay attention. Not surprisingly, John Shook and Mike Rother’s seminal Learning to See was a real breakthrough in the lean movement: it targeted perception of how value flows throughout the company (whereas Jim Womack and Dan Jones’s Lean Thinking was aimed at belief).

The fundamental issue with cultural explanations is that we expect that a culture is made of a shared set of consistent values, beliefs, behaviors, artifacts and perceptions. In practice, this is rarely the case. Culture tends to be a group level phenomenon (most people value, believe, behave, use, perceive in most cases) whereas at the Gemba we deal with what an individual values, believes, behaves, uses and perceives. In real life firstly there is not that much consistency between values and beliefs and behaviors and artifacts and perceptions and, secondly, there is not that much agreement either. Because our minds are pattern seeking generalization machines it’s easy to stereotype a “culture” at group level (it can even be measured quite precisely and robustly on given dimensions), but this is rarely predictive of what happens at individual level. As we were discussing, culture does have an impact on what happens, but the impact is relatively small.

“Strong” cultures are cultures where the alignment between these various aspects is high and the degree to which they are shared across the group also high. “Weak” cultures have inconsistent values, beliefs, behaviors, etc. and that are loosely shared amongst members of the group. However there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that strong cultures perform better than weak ones. Strong cultures have advantages in relationship building (people tend to communicate well and agree with each other) and in tool use (common goals, common practice), but they are equally prone to groupthink (collectively reaching the wrong conclusion in an uncertain situation) and inability to deal with changing circumstances. Strong cultures tend to promote peer pressure to conform and generate intolerance of difference, be it in body shape, personality, ideas or even tastes. Weak cultures can be unwieldy, but also far more open, creative and adaptive – which tends to be good for business.

Overall, culture is a great descriptive concept, but not a very operational change concept. Few books are as useful or influential as Jeff Liker’s work on The Toyota Way – a description of Toyota’s plan-do-check-act (PDCA) culture. But attempting to transform your own organization by changing its culture from scratch is likely to deliver the results you hope. First, drawing actual culture and future culture is fraught with dangers and misunderstandings. Secondly, even if you do, the change impact will be moderate and hard to sustain.

So how does one change a culture? Historically, the most reliable method remains strong leadership in the use of specific tools. The tools have to come with a cultural manual of (1) values – here are the goals, and here is how the tool is going to help us reach it, (2) beliefs – here is how the tool affects causal relationship between this and that, (3) behavior – in this specific situation, this is how we behave when people use the tool this or that way, (4) perception – this is what we look out for to see if the tool is behaving as we’d hoped to achieve our goals. Without this, tools in themselves rarely change the culture, as will testify all the people who’ve done single minute exchange of die (SMED) without specifying the goal of reducing batches and behaving consistently to increase changeovers, or those who’ve done 5S without specifying the goal of giving autonomy to teams to reduce variation in their operating cycles, and so on.

For what it’s worth, in your specific case, forget culture and focus on two practices:

  1.  Plan for engineers to regularly improve the performance of existing equipment in a “workshop” format (you have three days to improve output by 10%, or flexibility, or reliability, etc.)
  2. Set specific improvement goals for each new machine that is going to be installed (half the rejects, half the time to change, half the weigh, and so on), and make sure that real efforts are devoted to that goal

Don’t feel you have to change the rest of the culture. If you focus on clear outcomes from clear practices and show strong leadership, the rest will follow. In order to achieve these goals, if you steer them right, your engineers will have to go to the Gemba and discuss with operators, they will have to think differently about the equipment, they will progressively be drawn in all the various tools of lean, from takt time to total productive maintenance (TPM). But you don’t have to tell them that. Set the direction, repeat the practice, and listen to them and help them out to deal with the ensuing difficulties and create strong relationships, and the culture change will come.

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