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How Can Lean Take Root in a Crappy Culture?

Michael Ballé
8/31/2011
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Dear Gemba Coach:

I've done a lot of working with lean, and recently started my first coaching/consulting gig. And while I'd love to help by introducing people to flow, takt time, pull, and all the nifty lean tools and ideas, the most striking thing I've learned is how much hostility and mistrust exists among people. How can I help lean take root when the biggest problem turns out to be a crappy culture?

To be honest, what you describe could be said about most working environments. Yesterday I was visiting an industrial company and trying to understand, with the CEO, why a new development project was getting nowhere. The project manager accused another project manager of having jumped the queue for tooling, pushing her project ahead of others. The culprit defended herself by saying she was under enormous pressure from the customer and that they’d had to redo the tool because these idiots in tooling had botched it the first place. In tooling, it was all about the tool designer misunderstanding what the project manager wanted and, anyhow, nobody could ever work with anybody in this company.

The CEO was aghast. But the day before, I’d been walking the Gemba in a hospital where nurses, surgeons, and administrative staff were at each other’s throats over surgical theatre planning: medical secretaries could go straight into the planning system and change appointments, and in any case, surgeons never showed up on time, which wasn’t going to happen because sterile equipment was missing from central sterilization unit, and so on.

I’m OK; You’re Not

There is a well known psychological bias called the fundamental attribution error: we cannot help but overemphasize personality-based explanations of others’ behaviour, while dismissing situational-based rationales. The funny part is that we tend to reverse this when explaining our own behaviour, in which case the situation matters greatly more than our intentions (“I didn’t mean to do that”) or character (“I’m not like that, circumstances forced me to act in such a way”).

With this in mind, we can look back to real-life situations and see at the Gemba that work is, in many ways, set up to have people at odds with each other. First, there rarely is a common objective. People either define their own objectives or have them set up by their bosses in functional lines. Since all processes are integrated, different people seeking to optimize different aspects of the same process will invariably pull in different directions (what you win, I lose, and your loss is my gain), and thus fight – and attribute conflict to personalities or character.

Secondly, although most functions have traditions and professional criteria for what it takes to do the job well (i.e. what it means to be a nurse, a surgeon, tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor), few people understand the muda they create by their own technical choices and decisions. When the project manager sidesteps the tooling queue, she is creating consequences for everyone in the process she clearly does not understand or see. For instance, when a product designer chooses to use a different part to solve a problem, they hardly ever realize they’re creating an entirely new supply chain. Or when medical secretaries change the schedule for whatever reason, they have no inkling of the absolute mess they create in the entire operating theatre. Small, necessary changes for one person can involve large-scale overburden, stop-and-go and waste for many others. Until the person is trained to see it, they will continue to do so blithely, not understanding why all the others hate their guts (oh, these nurses, you know what they’re like…).

Trust in Problem Solving

To answer your question, you must first accept that trust is never a given. We start from a normal ape-like state of mild distrust, with every one wishing that others would simply let them get on with their job without impinging. Trust needs to be constantly, deliberately grown, like taking care of a plant, and it can be destroyed in an instant, in the same way that it takes years to grow a tree and minutes to cut it down. The lean system to build trust is teamwork: solving problems together. Indeed, in the hospital case, the administrative director I was talking with did not start by trying to solve problems outright with a lot of people who at the best don’t trust each other, at the worst hate one another. He started by deliberately building trust in relationships with others by solving specific problems with them. The trick here is to realize that improvement can only happen within a relationship and relationships can be built around Problem Solving.

By getting people to solve specific problems together whether they like each other or not – which often involves locking them in one room and banging heads together until they come to some agreement – mutual trust can seep back into the system. Teamwork is about giving individuals single responsibility to solve specific problems by working with others. Progressively, they’ll realize that the best way to help oneself is to help others achieve their objectives and that there is so much scope for improvement everywhere that it’s not that hard to do. In the hospital case, the administrative director started with something straightforward: the time of first incision. Every day he’d ask the teams to keep track of this and solve problems one after each other. It didn’t work in every operating theatre, but it did in most and the hospital gained overall 30 minutes of theatre use (it doesn’t sound like much but in a large hospital, this is quite significant). Most importantly, some teams learned that surgeon, nurses and admin staff could work together and so moved on to tackle other issues.

If this is so, the question then becomes: which problems can I pick in order to rebuild trust in a rotten culture? And the answer to that is written in your question: start with takt time, and ask people to keep to it. More specifically, start with customer complaints, and force teams to analyze these thoroughly. Just ignore the finger pointing: this is unavoidable and can be simply overlooked. By making people refocus on the main reason they all have to work together, some of the diverging objectives will exposed and be easier to deal with.

Still, only working on incidents is not necessarily conducive to more trusting relationships (it’s always someone else’s fault, remember). So the second step is to clarify what takt time means in the business and focus everyone at delivering at takt time, exactly. Whether these are new projects in engineering, surgical operations in the hospital or feeding customers in a restaurant, takt gives a rhythm that requires regular cooperation from all functions in the process.

Granted, visualizing what the takt is outside of straightforward manufacturing environments take some serious lean practice, but the thought to hang on to is that there is always a takt (after all, takt is an arbitrary device: open time divided by customer demand) to pacify the flow of, well, just about anything. Scratch your head and figure out what the takt is first, how you can visualize it for all second, and third how you can marshal every one’s efforts to keeping the takt, no arguments. Once you’ve figured out some concrete takt (or pace, whatever fits intuitively), the issue of trust is already half solved – it then becomes a case of managerial grit and as with Star Wars fighters in the Death Star’s canyons: stay on target! Stay on target!

The Lean Way to Change

Culture is both an input and an output of human behaviour. In my experience, it’s more the latter than the former: a collective expression of the fundamental attribution error, a way to explain to ourselves our collective actions and somehow cement and justify them. Culture change is thus much, much harder than situational change. So don’t worry about it and trust that if you change the rules you’ll change the game. The lean way to change the rules is to start with focusing on customers through quality and takt, and flow everything from there. Mutual trust will emerge from the practice of solving problems together regularly, takt will show which problems to solve daily.

If two people really don’t get on, no amount of lean work is going to change that. But cases of deep abiding dislike are rather few and far between. In all likelihood the broken process creates tensions, which are then interpreted as personal conflicts. Be soft on the people, tough on the problem and stick it out through several PDCA cycles and you’ll see the culture evolve, and most issues simply vanish.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Joanna Gaunder September 16, 2011
I love this article. Thank you for writing it.