The ABCs of Organizational Culture

Like the light of our sun on the dark side of the moon, the light of critical inquiry falls too rarely on organizational culture during a lean startup launch or a lean enterprise transformation. We have made organizational culture, its importance in the success of people and teams, and the role of kaizen therein the theme of our upcoming book Creating a Kaizen Culture.

We have learned from, borrowed and adapted the work of Prof. Edgar Schein found in Organizational Culture and Leadership and also The Corporate Culture Survival Guide. The second is quite accessibly and recommended for anyone wishing to make significant and sustainable change. Although not cited in our book, I also highly recommend for consultants, change agents or people who aspire to be better leaders both Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling and Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help. Schein is a wise, wise man.

Specifically, we have found great value in Schein’s model of organizational culture featuring the visible levels of artifacts, espoused values, and behaviors which are motivated by the invisible assumptions and underlying beliefs. We have adapted these to the lean thinking environment, fitted them to three levels named “the ABCs of Organizational Culture” as a mnemonic. The ABCs are:

A: Artifacts. The tools, methods and techniques.
B: Behaviors. The way things are done.
C: Core beliefs. Things we assume to be true.

The following is a simple illustration of the ABCs of organizational culture idea within a lean environment. The artifacts within a lean organizations may include visual management tools such as andon lamps, team boards displaying performance metrics, and workplace organization standards i.e. 5S. The behaviors we would expect to observe supporting and associated with these artifacts are leader standard work to go see the visuals, responding to problem alerts based on a timed escalation system, and problem solving dialogue with people in the areas. The core beliefs that must exist at the foundation in order to drive these behaviors include but are not limited to, “Good things happen when we manage by fact” and “Facts are found closest to the point of action (gemba)” as well as “People are not to blame for problems, instead the process is inadequate” and importantly “The management is here to support the front lines (gemba)”. Without strong beliefs such as these, there is insufficient motivation for the behaviors to use the tools and keep continuous improvement going sustainably.

I encourage the reader to select an artifact or two from their workplace to check how firmly it is underpinned by the right behaviors and core beliefs. Too much of the focus of lean pedagogy and practice has been and still remains, on the artifacts, tools and techniques for achieving better performance. While the tools are essential, they are not enough. More work is needed on the human elements of behavior and core beliefs in order for lean organizations to become sustainable. In our book we make the case that when kaizen is adopted with the ambition of “everyone, every day, everywhere” this results in a positive reinforcement loop of the desired thinking process with the tools-driven results, creating a kaizen culture.

We hope that we can build on the work of Prof. Edgar Schein and succeed in making people aware of the need to practice lean systems that make explicit links between core beliefs, behaviors and artifacts in our new book Creating a Kaizen Culture. Look for it in stores this October 2013.
Follow me on Twitter jmiller_kaizen