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My CEO would like to install a lean culture and has asked me to specify a few basic lean values we need to implement. Where should I start?

Michael Ballé
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Dear Gemba Coach,

My CEO would like to install a lean culture in our company and has asked me to specify a few basic lean values we need to implement. Where should I start?

Ah. Culture discussions almost make me long for the good ol’ days of lean when it was tools, tools, tools. The central irony of my daily work is that, having been trained as a cognitive sociologist, I spend my days at the gemba challenging executives on how they work with people, machines, and facilities while they were trained mostly as engineers of financiers and they argue about culture, structure, and behavior – in other words, we are mostly exchanging incompetences!

Joking apart, I tend to stay away from “culture” debates because the term itself is quite problematic, but we have to accept that “culture” (whatever this is) has become a common tool in today’s management toolkit – so you are asking a good question which, is fact rather hard to answer.

Culture, in the business sense, generally mean the values, beliefs, norms, and behaviors one can observe in the organization. The assumption is that performance is driven by the “right” individual behavior, which is conditioned by the organization’s “norms”, in turns supported by the company’s “values.” Consequently, managers seeking to reinforce “good” behavior and discourage “bad” behavior will try to influence the existing norms by communicating on the desired values – this is probably the model your boss has in mind. 

Values, as such, have two aspects to them. First is the notion that something is desired more rather than wanted less, which makes it valuable in itself. When we say cooperation is a value we mean that we’d like more cooperation, because this is good in itself, and less uncooperative behavior, which is bad. Value also has a second aspect of valuing such as how do we measure more or less cooperation? The assumption is that if someone values X, then the person will act in a way to reinforce X and avoid non-X. In this sense, what would lean values be? Let’s look at general values that have spread beyond the lean purist movement and that we can hear quite commonly now.

  1. Batch is bad, flow is good: not every one knows how to behave accordingly, but one idea that has spread out of the lean movement is that batch is bad – it creates inventory, drains cash and clogs processes. Processes should flow as naturally as possible which means that they should have (1) fewer steps and (2) be flexible. Now, neither of these two requirements is technically easy. The pressure to fraction processes in order to get a better unit price will always remain, Building more flexible equipment will never be easy. But certainly, since Jim Womack and Dan Jones started preaching the benefits of value streams in the mid 1990s, the idea has come a long way.
  2. Workplace is good, boardroom is bad: the dynamics of any large-ish organization make this hard to adhere to in practice, but few executives now pride themselves in running the company from their office and even in large, global firms, they will get on that plane and visit that plant. What they do when they get to the site remains vague, but the one has to be there, for sure, rather than stay in the executive suite and solve everything through meetings.
  3. Work-arounds are bad, problem solving is good: since the turn of the century (the millennium!) the other key idea that has made its way widely is the need to train the management line to solve its own problems by teaching problem solving skills – the “A3 problem-solving” method has spread far and wide. Again, Taylorist habits are hard to break and many companies find it easier to ask staff experts to come up with a better process (six sigma style)rather than train line people to solve their own problems, but overall as Big Data shifts local planning to even more centralized functions it is recognized that (1) standards have to be followed, but (2) local conditions are, well, local, and so local staff have to be trained to solve problems in the sense of closing gap to standard.
  4. What customers want is good, what the company imposes is bad: this is another idea that is very clearly making its way through the business world. It seems obvious when said like that, but much harder in practice. Certainly, lean’s hardcore obsession with quality is still not widespread, nor is the fact that superior quality is the result of employee’s learning curve rather than perfect processes. Hard to do in real life, but it’s become generally accepted that customers should be listened to.
  5. Engaging people is good, authoritarian management is bad: particularly in the marketing side of things, engagement (of the customer?) is now all the rage. People are increasingly seen as free agents able to pick alternatives rather than tied to a brand (or indeed a job). Surprisingly, the underlying lean notion that kaizen is good and reorganizing is bad has not had the same success. Toyota’s keystone insight was to involve all people all the time in small step-improvement in order to engage operators and develop the capabilities needed for big-step jumps when investing. This is one of the oldest ideas in lean, has been proved true time and time again, but has generally not been picked up.

I am not claiming these are the “lean values.” In visiting many companies I can see that, beyond the lean inner circle, good/bad valuations are changing even though actual practice often lags (it’s hard).

The main problem is that there is no clear evidence to think that values can be changed by fiat. The managerial assumption that changing values change beliefs and norms and hence change behaviors – and workplace tools is simply hard to back up. In sociology, culture means the ensemble symbolic codes of a society, which are its ways of thinking, its ways of acting as well as the material objects that shape its way of life. In fact, from anthropology, we learn that symbolic development of modern humans was very linked to its stone tool development. Symbols and physical tools co-develop. Values and artifacts can’t be separated.

Typically, a change in the tools available to humans, changes the scope of what they can do or can’t do (according to how well they learn to use the tool) and so will end up changing their values. Value change is the outcome of the relationship between tools and their use. Mastering the lean tools and understanding the scope of performance they open is the key to culture change. This process is brilliantly described by Art Byrne in his Lean Turnaround book where he shows how his learning curve started with a rudimentary kanban between two sites, and how much he got out of SMED once he saw the cash impact flexibility brought to the entire company.

No Lean Values

The core intuition of lean, from back in the eighties before it was called lean, was that practicing kaizen on current equipment, one could understand it better and thus know what new equipment to invest in. Without kaizen, any new equipment would go downhill and problems would be carried over in any replacement. In other terms, kaizen teaches the tool users to better use the equipment, and thus better understand its issues so that, when they invest, they do actually progress. Technical evolution can’t be separated from individual learning curves. The eighties and nineties are also replete with examples of people who tried to install “model lines” without having gone through the kaizen discipline of learning, only to watch them fail because no one knew how to deal with such tight process parameters.

I don’t believe there are such things as “lean values.” I believe that if you practice kaizen every day with as many people as you can, you’ll learn things about your business that will grow it in different innovative ways. The lean tools are various standard ways in which to practice – and support - kaizen. In this sense, we’re much closer to the modern definition of culture: the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols and to act imaginatively and creatively. In simpler terms, the understanding of typical problems and typical solutions that lead to creative and innovative answers.

In this sense of “culture”, installing a lean culture would mean understanding the key technical challenges of the business and getting every employee to work on these challenges in small step ways at their level, every day. With this in mind, what kind of environment would we need to create to support every day kaizen, by every one? Practicing this every day would end up in fundamentally changing the values of the company, faster and surer than by trying to “implement” new values by decree.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Brian November 22, 2013
I would start with him.