Depending on where you are right now, it might be hard to believe, but spring is upon us. Yesterday was the first day that it was warm enough to get me thinking about planting vegetables for this year. My garden area is at the very back of the yard, and until yesterday, I hadn’t wandered back there since November or so. In the intervening months, I didn’t plant anything. I didn’t water anything. I didn’t fertilize anything. So you’d think that the results would be, well, nothing. Quite the opposite is true. The place where I left bare dirt is full of grass, dandelions and other random weeds. Neither my lack of intention for the space nor my lack of attention to it stopped nature from filling the void.
Company culture works in much the same way. In business, culture is defined as, “A way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization.” Your company has a culture whether or not it is one that you’ve chosen and nurtured. Leaders who want to reap the lasting benefits of continuous improvement by implementing the Lean business management approach are served well by cultivating a Lean culture.
The first step in establishing a Lean culture is defining the set of behaviors, beliefs, and expectations that will be requirements of thriving in your organization. Essentially, you are defining “normal” for your team. Examples might be:
- We never knowingly pass by a safety hazard without taking action.
- We work together to eliminate waste in all its forms.
- Everyone is empowered and expected to identify opportunities for improvement.
- Leaders recognize and reward employees who contribute to positive change.
Once the guiding principles are established it is essential to make sure they are institutionalized within the organization. This means that job descriptions, performance evaluations, recognition programs, bonus systems, recruiting, and new hire orientation are all aligned with the culture you want to create.
Intention alone is not enough. Just like my lack of attention to my garden resulted in a bed of weeds, simply verbalizing the beliefs and behaviors you want your employees to exhibit is insufficient to establish a Lean culture. Leaders must model the attitudes and conduct that they wish to propagate. They must hire and promote people who share those beliefs.
Carlos Ghosen, CEO of Renault-Nissan explained it this way,
"I think that the best training a top manager can be engaged in is management by example. I want to make sure there is no discrepancy between what we say and what we do. If you preach accountability and then promote somebody with bad results, it doesn't work. I personally believe the best training is management by example. Don't believe what I say. Believe what I do."
When a Lean culture is cultivated with intention and attention something remarkable happens. People who do not practice the principles of Lean and the guiding values of the organization start to stand out, and not in a good way. Walking past a safety hazard or a 5S problem becomes a bit like keeping your hat on during the Star Spangled Banner or chewing with your mouth open. People will look at you funny. When those who exhibit the expected behavior outnumber and outshine those who do not, the culture’s momentum shifts toward improvement and it becomes a reflexive way of thinking and working. Decision making becomes easier at every level and consensus is reached quickly.
Establishing a Lean culture is essential to fully harvesting the benefits of continuous improvement. It takes care and feeding and you have to get your hands dirty, but the results are worth the effort.