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Isn’t lean all about culture?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Isn’t lean all about culture, really?

Twenty-four years into lean, and this question still pops up. Amazing. Isn’t Toyota Japanese? Isn’t lean designed for the Japanese culture? And yes, on the Gemba, people still question Japanese words, such as Gemba, kaizen or – save us! – heijunka. Although few people would question the use of karaoke, manga, or kimono. Individual words are retained by any language when they mean something specific where no pre-existing word quite fits.

Oddly, lean is probably the first, truly global management approach. And I don’t mean one where American business thinking has come to dominate the world, as in the Taylor-Ford-Sloan-Welch form of running companies. But one that came together from global strands:

  • Sakichi Toyoda, inventor of the first Toyoda looms, born in the time of the Samurai, did three trips to the US. Much of the seed money for the Toyota Motor came from a loom patent sold to a British firm.
  • Just-in-time was coined in English by Kiichiro Toyoda in his first text explaining the idea of “what is needed, only when it’s needed, in the quantity needed” (he probably meant just on time, actually.)
  • The Creative Idea program was brought back from a tour of Ford factories by Eiji Toyoda who, by his own account, didn’t grasp all the statistics-based quality methods he was taught (the 1950’s six-sigma efforts) but returned to Japan with a leaflet on Ford’s suggestion system (just as Ford was about to abandon it) and interpreted it as “good thinking, good products.”
  • Takt time is a concept inherited from the aeronautics engineers in Japan trained by German engineers in plane manufacturing, at Mitsubishi’s Nagoya Aircraft Works during WWII.
  • Photos of an American supermarket inspired Taiichi Ohno to think of kanban. More generally, the main aim of the TPS was to catch up to U.S. productivity without the same outlay of capital and labor as Toyota had learned from early crises how damaging layoffs can be.
  • The most Western component that pervades lean thinking Toyota’s origins is the deliberate attempt to achieve a scientific mindset of rigorous, empirical enquiry.

Toyota was very much competing against carmakers driven by U.S.-born industrial concepts, so much of the manufacturing language stems from Western notions. Other aspects, however, seem very Asian and continue to confound us all these years later. The first two that come to mind are standards and kaizen spirit.

Standards are in all likelihood meant in the sense of “kata” – the proper way to do things- at movement level and not in the Western meaning of procedure or rule. Standardized work, certainly, is about the ballet of foot movement, hand movements, eye movements to produce the part with the least possible waste.

Mechanically Declined

For instance, I have an old car that I use very infrequently and its battery keeps dying when I need it. I asked the garage about it and the guy said to unhook the battery wire when not using the car. Huh? Sure, the procedure is:

  1. Open the hood
  2. Find the battery
  3. Use an Allen wrench 10mm to unscrew the bolt
  4. Disconnect the battery wire.

I did as I was told and opened the hood and … stopped by the garage so that he could show me. Inexperienced as I am as a car mechanic, I fumbled with every step:

  1. Opening the hood: Where? How? How do I make it stay open?
  2. Find the battery: What does a battery even look like?
  3. Unscrew the bolt: Which bolt? How? How do I screw it back on again?
  4. Disconnect the battery wire: Which wire – there are two of them, etc.

In fact, as soon as I was shown the actual movements I have to do, the sequence of steps, I got it. My mechanic friend also pointed out what to watch for, and how much tension to put in the screwing and unscrewing, etc. In the end, I had mini-dojo experience, which I can now perfect if I need to – this notion of “standard” is very different from the procedure he originally read to me.

“Soldier On”

Similarly, kaizen also has a connotation of vitality, and is improvement done within quality circles, by the workers themselves, not engineer-driven improvements. Quality circles have been one of the first features observed in “Japanese management” back in the 1980s, and remain a mystery to most Western companies to this date. Sensei keep repeating that the point of the Thinking People System is to develop the kaizen spirit, but we find it hard to grasp their meaning, within our mechanical design-the-solution-first-then-staff-people-in-it outlook.

For instance, in my battery case, I had enough energy to go and find out (the motivation is clear – not getting stuck with needing a car that won’t start), but low vitality to get good at it. The chances that I’ll think about how to improve my standard of disconnecting the battery are slim.

On other aspects of my daily life and work, however, I know I have to get better, and I will try to improve. The vitality with which I try influences how successful I am. In writing Gemba Coach columns, for instance, sometimes I feel vitalized and I try something else (which is a team effort with my friends and editors Chet Marchwinski and Tom Ehrenfeld), and sometimes I feel low vitality and I just write a column without wondering about how it could be better (in Frederick Taylor’s terms, I “soldier on.”) This is hard to do by oneself, and I’m very grateful for my writing Sensei Tom Ehrenfeld to always catch me out when I’m pontificating and ask: where’s the Gemba? (His phrase is: “this is Gemba Coach. I can see the coaching, but where is the Gemba?”)

A Mishmash

Finally, as many observers have noted, “lean” itself is NOT the Toyota Production System. It’s a worldwide attempt to figure out what TPS really is and how it applies outside of Toyota, outside of automotive, and in fields as far apart from each other as healthcare and Internet startups.

Culture is a catch-all word that somehow means the ideas, traditions, and behaviors of any group of people – company, society, region, nation, continent. Yes, in that sense, everything humans do is cultural in one way or another.

And in this sense, lean is indeed cultural – the product of globalization. Europe and European offshoots (such as the U.S.) dominated the world for much of the 19th and 29th centuries, and most of the business practices we know are U.S.-based, many of them born out of U.S. hegemony after WWII.

Lean thinking is unique because it is not born out of the Taylor-Ford-Sloan-Welch thinking, although it borrows elements of it for sure. It’s a mishmash of Western and Asian thinking, interpreted and reinterpreted in experiments across the world. Rather than look for the lean origins in this or that, here or there, the fascinating question is more how do these various cultural forms blend to create something unique – and new!

A long winded-way to answer that, yes, “culture” is part of the equation, because it influences our interpretations of key concepts, but it can easily turn into a red-herring as we start debating “cultural” issues no one really knows about (since we can’t define culture operationally) and stops us from actually learning-by-doing. My advice is, forget about culture, go back to the Gemba and ask yourself: What does the lean system really mean for me in this situation:

  1. What are customer outcomes and the VA/VE topics I can see to improve customer satisfaction and profitability on the Gemba?
  2. Where can I stop-call-fix the process to avoid passing on known defects rather than just focus on output?
  3. Where can I reduce lead-times by flowing work faster and more fluidly to make obstacles appear?
  4. How can I engage and satisfy people better by supporting more their autonomy problem solving and kaizen?
  5. How can I grow greater mutual trust by daily demonstrating respect for people and teamwork?
4 Comments | Post a Comment
BS April 17, 2017

Don't disagree with anything.

I find it ironic that the healthcare industry in the US has hired "successful" lean senseis from US auto industry to lead their cultural transformation.

My experience is that for all their talk of culture, the only thing they do is to implement tools that worked back at the parts factory they come from with the promise that if you change the work you will change the culture.

So seemingly they don't understand TPS and they don't understand the industry and the local culture they work in and everyone is surprised after many years there is little lasting improvement.

Lotte April 19, 2017

Interesting vision! I think that the culture discussion is actually exact about the 5 questions you state at the end of your article. Should the behavior shown by all employees not be that they ask themselves those 5 questions on a continuous basis? Your Gemba as a leader could be to check to which extend employees already asking these questions themselves? Love to hear your ideas about this.

Wayne April 21, 2017

I think that you have some very good points. I hate to use the word culture because to me whenn I first started to learn about lean my Senseis used it so much. Trying to get people to change the way they think especialy in places where Taylorism is still a way of life is very hard to do. Incorporating Respect as part of the principals of lean is one way that I have found to help break that barrier. Both coming from ythe top and from the floor all people knowing that respect is the way of sustaining change. 

Alex McDonnell May 5, 2017

See my article on "Why TPS is not Lean for the Masses" and how to fix it.


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