Lean, Philosophy

Leaning out the Culture

Why is lean such a difficult concept to accept in America?  Every deployment I’ve ever been a part of has had at least a few individuals that would just try and spoil the soup and to what end?  I have sat down with a number of Lean Practitioners in many different industries within the US to get their thoughts on this matter and the following is a summation of those conversations.  It’s a shame that the US has such a hang up with the philosophical principles driving Lean.  Unless one enters a company with a strong cultural affinity towards Lean the transition can be a painful experience.  This is unfortunate because the benefits of Lean are immeasurable.

America just needs to let go.

Whenever the term Lean is introduced the initial thought immediately goes to the phrase, “flavor of the week(month).”  This term was popularized by the band American Hi-Fi but, more so coined by ice cream shops as their premier or special flavor and has been synonymous with new and exciting “programs” companies put out to improve the business.  Many times falling by the wayside after a few months or so until a new “program” is brought to the forefront.  I relate this to the “Peter Crying Wolf” syndrome and soon the latest “program” is understood to be a fad and not to become too engaged.  When this behavior is taken with Lean it creates a great distance between the Practitioners and the masses.

The philosophical principles that drive the tools of Lean are unable to gain any traction because the people never allow Lean to move.  They remain disengaged expecting Lean to be another fad or “flavor of the month”.  But, what happens when a company “pushes” Lean and enables Practitioners to really drive Lean into the organization?

Why does it remain a difficult endeavor even years into the deployment?

Even when Lean is adopted by some areas or groups of an organization because of the silo effect of many corporations, the benefits of Lean are not seen.  When asked of those groups to speak on their journey, much of the time all that is heard is “hard work”, “trial and error” and great deal of commitment required to get the “ball rolling.”  I will admit anything put into an existing system that disrupts the “flow” of that system creates a need for attention which could be interpreted as more work however, the hour you take today will save you the day you spend tomorrow.

Lean can be implemented in a manner that is less disruptive than many have experienced.  Often I hear that when a company begins a Lean implementation, the company either hires a consulting firm to train a few individuals to act as Practitioners in addition to their “day job” or they send a number of individuals to be trained in Lean Principles but, ultimately have the same expectations.  Either way the company is expecting these individuals to add on to an already full day and typically results in a poor attitude towards Lean.

Rarely does a company enable or hire someone(s) who will focus their entire being into a Lean deployment.  When this does happen though the second part must be full support and adoption by the top leadership team.  It must be driven down through the organization allowing Lean to become the way they manage the business.

Going further into a Lean initiative I have only seen one instance of a company starting at the top and truly driving Lean down from the top but, even then was met with quite a bit of resistance.  Finally after talking with many different owners and practitioners I feel it boils down to culture.  That big nasty word we’ve even created curriculum around to train people to deal with, CULTURE.

 Is culture really a deal breaker in any deployment? 

Many times there is nothing in place that “forces” a team, group or department to embrace the Lean philosophy and use the tools in the toolbox.  Some of the more successful Lean deployments have gone so far as to change personnel in areas to those who would promote and were in line with Lean philosophies.  I am not suggesting firing the department and starting fresh but, there are times when people are so toxic that purging the system of that toxicity is necessary to move forward. 

Removing “effective” from an organization and taking that step back is daunting however, there are times when taking that step back is required to enable the organization to move forward.  Toxins spread quickly and often result in killing any ground gained initially, taking the deployment back past the initial stages because there is animosity and unacceptance looming in the air.  Any attempt at re-deploying is met with greater resistance.

If those at the top are not embodying Lean what is the motivation to follow?
 
One must remember that the US is only less than 240 years old whereas, many other countries Japan specifically are far older and more importantly have had far less influence over their base culture.  Japan, which is where Lean was conceived and born, has a much different mindset and culture than that of the US.  These cultural differences enable the acceptance of Lean.  Culturally speaking Lean is Japanese.  Just as the philosophical principles of Buddhism, martial arts such as aikido or judo, and even manga are looked at quizzically by many citizens of the US, Lean is looked at with much the same reservation. 

I think going forward with a Lean deployment is tricky in any environment but, within the US where being an individual is preferred over being a part of the whole adds an element of disruption.  The consensus remains that a dedicated group of Practitioners educating and deploying with full support of the top leadership pushing Lean down through the organization is the best option to create a Lean culture within an organization otherwise, you’re just pushing a rope up a steep hill.  

 
 
 

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