How to Sustain a Lean Culture after 10 Years

This week I am in Japan helping to lead one of our lean manufacturing benchmarking trips. What I took away from the debriefing from yesterday’s lean benchmarking visit was a series of lessons on how to sustain a lean culture after 10 years. The company we visited had made a few defining choices, played their cards well so to speak, and this shows in how they operate their lean management system and sustain their lean culture. These can be summarized as follows:

Bottom up trumps top down. The early years of a lean transformation tend to be directive and driven by a senior leadership or a compelling business need, such as a crisis. This was the case for this company. Crises come and go, as do senior managers. There should always be a top down element to kaizen but in the case of this company the major focus in on bottom up engagement and continuous daily improvement at the workplace. The role of the senior management is to make sure these small improvements add up to something tangible and strategically meaningful.

Recognition trumps reward. This company has a very active kaizen suggestion program. The implemented ideas are displayed visibly in the hallways and they take great efforts to recognize people for their creativity and efforts. Many companies struggle to sustain because they remain on the reward side of the people engagement chasm. Over the long haul people find greater satisfaction from recognition, a resource that costs very little and can be spent almost infinitely.

Simple slogans trumps specific targets. Although Dr. Deming urged us not to manage by slogans and exhortations, a surprising number of long-living lean transformations use short, simple slogans. The key seems to make them big picture and general enough to require people to think about how it applies to them.

Complaining trumps self satisfaction. The people in an organization which is 10 years into a lean transformation should not be satisfied with their condition. A happy lean culture is a faltering lean culture. People should be happy, but there should be a distinct sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Frequent and brief complaining followed by 5 why root cause analysis and corrective action is a characteristic of a sustaining lean culture.

Structured program trumps invisible behaviors. It’s tempting to think that a formal, structured lean program is no longer necessary after 10 years of practicing lean because it is now “in the blood” and does not require special promotion or attention. However this is rarely the case. Nature abhors a vacuum, and corporations seem to abhor a vacuum in program-space. Best to keep the lean program and improve it also continuously as a support mechanism.

Pedal to the metal trumps cruise control. Thomas Jefferson said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance” and coincidentally this is also the price of a sustained lean culture. At no time is it safe to put the program on cruise control. Corners always want to be cut, people naturally want to do what is easy, and without strong leadership to remind people that sometimes the important things are not easy, a lean culture will not sustain.

Developing people trumps driving results. After 10 years even people who may have only paid this lip service begin to see the cause and effect connection and begin to believe. It takes time to develop people. When you can point to people that have developed with the organization and are driving results, this is a sign that the elements of a sustainable lean culture are in place.
I wonder what else is required to sustain a lean culture for the next 10 years?

2 Comments

  1. Matt Wrye

    September 16, 2010 - 7:56 pm

    I really like seeing how a company 10 years into the lean transformation/journey says to keep it going. Sounds just like things from a company a year or two into the journey. It is all about keeping the focus and edge and not becoming complacent.

  2. Joseph

    September 19, 2010 - 1:27 pm

    Jon.
    The reason that most Lean Systems Fail is because the Western Management mind set and training says.
    We have taken all of the benefits out that we can with this Lean System so lets try another one. The leaders are users of Lean but not believers in Lean.
    The workers have seen it all before and this is why they will not buy into Lean or any other systems. It is like Halley’s Comet. Here it comes again. The flavour of the month and all that other good stuff.