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Why Lean Culture is Key to Revitalizing US Manufacturing

January 21, 2022
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Lean companies talk about “respect for people'' as a key piece of the Lean mindset, but what does it mean? It means that those who are closest to the process and add value are the true experts when it comes to rapid and sustained kaizen and that the role of managers is to develop and empower them. 

At Veryable, we want to embody the “respect for people” mindset by enabling anyone who wants to build their Lean skills.

In this blog we often write about Lean tools, but today you will learn about a subject dear to my heart: what kind of culture does Lean thrive in?

Lean Manufacturing Concepts written on post it notes in various colors six sigma mud poka yoke kaizen kanban 5s toyota production


Why Lean Culture Matters

The fact is, anyone can learn about Lean. It’s not a secret that is being kept away from us. There are hundreds of books, websites, and courses available out there. However, it is also a fact that most Lean transformation efforts end in failure, or at least fail to meet the expectations of sponsors. If it’s not the availability of knowledge that is holding us back, it must be something about the mindset.

Ask any experienced Lean practitioner about their history with Lean, and they’ll all tell you roughly the same story: when they were first exposed to the concepts, they were somewhat disoriented. Then, once they understood them, they fell in love with the tools.

But it’s only after a lot of experience actually doing Lean work that they realized the importance of the human factor. And it’s only at that point that they felt they truly “got it” and started talking about Lean as a “philosophy” rather than a toolbox.


Common Mistakes When Creating Lean Culture

This journey takes a few years. It’s therefore no surprise that anywhere between 60% and 98% (depending who you ask) of the Lean transformations fail.

No matter how well designed and implemented, Lean transformations will fail due to these common mistakes:
  • Tools are applied in an environment where front-line workers are not empowered to make improvements
  • People who bring up problems get punished while those who keep them covered up thrive (or just survive)
  • People who bring up ideas get repeatedly ignored and stop flagging them
  • Leaders fail to address problems that are exposed by Lean tools such as flow cells, kanban, or takt time because the exposure of these problems makes their job difficult
  • Leadership doesn’t regularly (several times per week) go to the shop floor with the intent to look for trouble (by which I mean, they must learn to see and seek waste)
  • Leaders spot deviations to standard and ignore them
  • Leaders don’t model desired behaviors for employees
  • Leaders do a lot of telling and little asking
  • People on the shop floor get no respect

This list, by the way, is not complete; it’s just a few of the behaviors that Lean leaders mistakenly display day in and day out. Even if all this doesn’t make a lot of sense to you right now, it will once you get used to working in a Lean environment and learn about the Lean system. 

But it’s not enough to understand what behaviors are needed and why. The difficult part is to change your behaviors, especially in times of crisis when your old habits are going to come back with a vengeance.

The conventional mindset worked pretty well in its own way, but it won’t work at all in a Lean system.


Two Key Cultural Changes That Make Lean Work

To succeed at Lean, organizations need to succeed at creating a very special kind of culture. There is a right way to go about the process of culture change, and you’ll be off to a good start if you remember these two key points:

  • Top leadership must adopt the Lean mindset
  • Coaching must be delivered consistently and based on facts

Top Leadership Must Adopt the Lean Mindset

First, although CEOs can’t force culture change, it’s fair to say it can’t happen without them. Therefore, begin at the top. Until the top leadership adopts the Lean mindset, it’s not time to go anywhere past a limited pilot project. Without top leadership adopting the Lean mindset, even a pilot is risky; not because it wouldn’t work, but because it would work and then get ignored, overridden or cancelled, thus demotivating your best people and making it much more difficult to bring people onboard when the leadership eventually decides to move ahead with Lean.


Coaching Must be Delivered Consistently and Based on Facts

Second, behavior change seldom occurs as a solitary exercise. Yes, the bulk of the effort is on the individual, but even the most committed person is unlikely to succeed without some help in the form of coaching. 

The good news is, almost anybody can be a coach once they know what to look out for. The coach, however, must be trusted by and close enough to the person they’re coaching so they can observe him or her and give immediate feedback on what they see and hear. This feedback must be based on accurate and detailed facts, because mistakes will occur unconsciously… after all, this person is sincerely trying to change! 

The reason this type of coaching works is that it confronts us in real time about behavior that’s keeping us from what we aspire to. That emotional charge of good (albeit painful) feedback helps us develop a “sixth sense” so that eventually, we can recognize those behavioral “anomalies” as they occur, and hopefully as they’re about to occur. If we are truly committed to the change, we’ll then be in a better position to correct our behaviors.

You can see that the prerequisite to successful transformation is a genuine desire on the part of leadership to change. Intellectually understanding and agreeing with the plan doesn’t exempt leaders from coaching. 

Coaching must be a deliberate, voluntary decision.


Next Steps for Your Lean Journey

If you are the lead executive of an organization and you want to succeed at Lean, the first thing you’ll need is to find a Lean coach. Many smaller businesses, however, can’t afford to hire expensive consultants, so what should they do? My advice is twofold:

First, you should learn about Lean on your own. Being taught by a coach is certainly fantastic, but it’s not a necessity. The coach is really there to help you change your behaviors and mindset. If you carefully study a few good books, you will learn what you need to know.  

Second, partner with someone you trust and ask him or her to be your coach. It could be a peer in a neighboring business, or part of your professional network. The point is to find someone who understands your perspective and who also wants to get started on the Lean journey, just like you. Set up a schedule of sessions where you are going to define goals and hold each other accountable.

If you want additional guidance, Veryable offers operations consulting to help you on your Lean transformation journey. Contact us today about operations consulting to take another step in your Lean journey.

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