Culture is a living embodiment of what the organization is – reflecting its past, its current customs, and foretelling its future – culture is a beast. Culture is defined as a “blend of the values, beliefs, taboos, symbols, rituals and myths all companies develop over time” – governing how people interact and even determining the organization’s ability to grow and change. The organization creates its culture but is also bound by it.
Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch
Any organization interested in developing and successfully implementing strategic initiatives must understand and incorporate the culture of the organization. Culture facilitates the status quo and will gobble up attempts to change – unless the culture beast is aligned with the change. Most failed attempts at lean transformation come back to culture. Even if there are some obvious gains, they will often be in the form of “islands of excellence”. A stifling culture will render change attempts stuck in the mud. These “brown fields” are common – where top management attempted lean but could not get it to stick. The culprit? Unyielding culture.
Leadership can influence culture most directly through its actions – or inaction. Depending on the company’s leadership and values, certain corporate cultures form which enable change and growth, while others stifle creativity and change. A culture of fear will stifle any change. If people feel threatened, they will not take risks – least of all driving change. Even if there is a movement towards change, an organization beset by fear and uncertainty will quickly withdraw into a blame game and more effort will be spent on covering their butts and pointing fingers than on achieving company goals.
Dozens of studies have been made of the NUMI (New United Motors, Inc) plant, a joint venture between Toyota and GM, staffed by the UAW. The plant was universally recognized as one of the best in North America, if not the world, for a number of years before being shuttered in 2010. Despite sharing plant management duties, with complete access to training and learning, “General Motors lost and Toyota won” (Steven J. Spear). The one lean lesson GM could not take back to its headquarters was the culture. Tools can enable major change but will not by themselves instill a culture of Continuous Improvement. Nevertheless, tools is where you start…
Want Change? Feed the Beast
Culture is a living thing. It changes over time and feeds on daily activity. Changing its diet in the form of daily work habits and interactions changes culture, little by little. If culture eats strategy for lunch, structure shapes culture. Structure is the fulcrum to leverage a change in culture.
Change happens only with sustained effort or major upheaval. Entropy, the tendency for change efforts to dissipate or degrade, is enhanced by nay-sayers and those comfortable or benefiting from the status quo. Existing patterns, relationships, and mores will only change with a shift in self interest. If employees at all levels can see the benefit – resistance will be lowered and the possibilities for real and significant change increased dramatically.
A change in structure, or how information and product flows in the organization, can effect a change in culture, and thus in how we interact with one another. Implementation of Lean Tools such as leader standard work, workplace organization and visual systems, pull systems controlled by kanbans (min-max), and kaizen events which promote communication, learning, and rapid change all have the effect of structurally changing how we work. Lean Tools promote a Process Centered organization. The schedule is no longer dictated from high up in the organization but rather based on pull from the customer, and replenishing kanban bins become the province of the employee. The system itself drives work, and human effort is spent on improving the system.
What culture do we want?
In the traditional, Employee Centered Organization, information flows from top to bottom. Command and Control functions are easily recognizable. Directives are passed down to those who actually add value to the product or service, and little information flows back upward. Little information transfers between functional silos, either. Meaningful lateral connections are at the management level, and change is identified and implemented by Management. Virtually all organizations see the value of employee participation. How do we get it? How to get employees involved in improving their workplace, and consequently, the company?
In the Process Centered Organization, information flows both up and down the organization. The conversation changes. Management finds itself in the position of asking their employees, “How can I help you do your job better?” Opportunities for improvement are readily identified and implemented across the organization, resulting in a continuous cycle of improvement. Leaders still lead, managers still manage, and the entire organization is in step. Culture has effectively flipped. Instead of a few minds working on improving company processes, all employees own their processes and are seeking continuous improvement.
Continuous improvement is just that: continuous. As the organizational culture flips from a people centered one to a process centered one, people improve their problem solving abilities at all levels of the plant to achieve the organizations’ True North. The process is done in steps. An upside down triangle is not initially a very stable structure; it needs a lot of attention to achieve balance. Critical to sustaining this new process centered culture is turning workers into problem solvers, so they can truly control and improve their own processes. Empowered workers will strive for ever greater productivity and waste elimination, especially if they share in the gains. Conflicts and turf battles dry up in favor of joint collaboration to resolve problems.
Keeping the Beast Happy: Servant Leadership
Managing from the “bottom of the pyramid” takes a completely different skill set than managing from the top. It’s watering the horses, then the men, and finally, the officers. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Implicit in servant leadership is the belief that every person has value and deserves civility, trust, and respect and that people can accomplish much when inspired by a purpose beyond themselves – both foundations of a lean culture.
Chris Edmonds’ The Culture Engine, details five practices to servant leadership:
- Clarify and reinforce the need for service to others, educating through their words and actions, encourage their team to do likewise.
- Listen intently and observe closely, actively soliciting group participation, their ideas, and their feedback. They get to know each one of their employees, and they tailor their leadership approach accordingly.
- Mentor others, guiding them and helping their employees learn vital skills that will both improve their performance, grow as people.
- Demonstrate persistence – be tenacious and invest whatever time it takes to educate and inspire servant leadership practices in the members of their team.
- Hold themselves and others accountable for their commitments. Practice what they preach. Push for high standards of performance, service quality, and alignment of values throughout the team, and they hold themselves and their people accountable for their performance.
Only through sustained, vigilant effort by leaders can the culture beast be happy with its new diet. But a diet based on continuous improvement principles and practices is a healthy one indeed, and the organization will flourish, along with its culture.
Let Value Stream Focus help you get your organization moving on a path of Continuous Improvement and Cost Reduction. Call 760-500-6006 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.