When lean tools are used effectively every day, manufacturers eventually arrive at a destination: lean culture. All the continuous improvement efforts along the way will drive a cyclical culture that’s sustainable.

However, manufacturing environments where continuous improvement thrives don’t magically happen overnight. They evolve over time, after years of practicing the basic principles of lean manufacturing.

Every organization, company, assembly plant, cell and team is a reflection of its leadership. To create real change in a manufacturing enterprise, managers must first understand what drives the business. The source of power is people and their behaviors.

“To change a business, you must change people’s behaviors,” says Eric Pope, vice president of operations at U.S. Synthetic Corp., a leading provider of drill bits for the energy industry. Pope has been a driving force behind the company’s evolution from a typical batch and queue manufacturing system to a world-class, lean manufacturing facility that was the recipient of the 2011 Shingo Prize for manufacturing excellence.

“The sum of these behaviors is the culture,” adds Pope. “All business results are driven from the behaviors of people. When you change the culture, you change the business. Teaching people how to think and act differently is the key. The culture of your business can be your most powerful strategic advantage.”

Continuous improvement has enabled U.S. Synthetic to grow 23 percent annually since beginning its lean journey 13 years ago. The company maintains a strong focus on empowering employees and encouraging ideas. As a result, product innovation has increased and customers have been better served with improved delivery times, decreased inventory, and superior quality and performance.

“The intelligence, goodness and alignment of your people are difficult to replicate,” notes Pope, who delivered the keynote speech at the 2018 ASSEMBLY Show in Rosemont, IL. “When your employees think and act in alignment with your customers and your business, you can’t lose. Businesses that focus on people, and establish values and principles throughout the organization, will achieve unparalleled success.”

Lean culture is like tradition. It’s not something that can be bottled up and used whenever you want.

“There are fundamental leadership principles that will drive and empower a continuous improvement culture,” says Pope. “We typically are taught the principles and tools of lean, but are unfamiliar with the empowering culture component that is driven by leadership principles. These leadership principles, coupled with the principles of the Toyota Production System, form a powerful combination for business success.

“Culture by design requires changing the way that people think and work,” claims Pope. “That’s difficult to do, because people get comfortable with the way they are. You have to establish a foundation so that change can happen. The definition of ‘win’ has to be shared and understood by everyone.”

Pope says there are four basic steps to creating a lean culture:

  • Establish a vision for what you want. Define ideal behaviors for ideal results.
  • Establish the foundation for change. Define who is “we”; define what is “winning”; and define what is the “game.”
  • Learn to see culture and understand the root of behaviors that drive it.
  • Create new experiences to change belief. Start with self for improved daily experiences. Believe that you have great people outperforming poor systems.

“The sum of your choices will equal your results,” claims Pope. “At U.S. Synthetic, we changed our environment to enable every employee to make good choices daily. Everything we do is about enabling people so they can see problems, make better choices and get better results every single day.”


Lean Culture Defined

Lean culture means different things to different people. Even multiple assembly plants within the same organization can have slightly different cultures due to factors such as varying leadership personalities.

“Even within a company such as Toyota, the nature of the culture from plant to plant will only be about 80 percent the same,” says Mark Reich, a senior coach at the Lean Enterprise Institute who previously spent more than 20 years in management positions at Toyota Motor Corp. in Japan and the United States. “It will be different based on the capability of each individual plant manager.

“Toyota never really defined its culture for a long time,” adds Reich, who most recently served as general manager of the Toyota Production System Support Center. “For a long time, top management believed that culture is an outcome of the way you work and the way things get done in the organization.”

In 2001, the automaker issued an internal document entitled The Toyota Way. It was created in response to a major overseas expansion effort in the 1990s that challenged the company’s manufacturing prowess. The Toyota Way identified five attributes that define lean culture:

  • Challenge.
  • Kaizen.
  • Respect for people.
  • Genchi genbutsu (go and see for yourself).
  • Teamwork.

“‘Challenge’ means we’re always pushing the capability to develop people through daily kaizen or continuous improvement.,” says Reich. “‘Respect for people’ means more than just being nice to each other; it also includes respecting a person’s intellect, which means we challenge them to try to grow. At Toyota, respect for people means developing their capability to deliver business outcomes.

 “‘Genchi genbutsu’ means being present and understanding front-line work to be able to coach people to improve their work,” adds Reich. “‘Teamwork’ means that, as an organization, we have to function together.

“Toyota leaders didn’t just sit down one day and say ‘this is what we think we should be,’” explains Reich. “The company realized that ‘this is the way we are and it’s important we write it down so that everybody understands.’

“In a lean culture, people are engaged and focused on improving their work,” says Reich. “Continuous improvement is visible and happens all the time at every level of the organization. Constant PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) is critical to sustaining a lean culture. Without it, culture will deteriorate.”

“Lean culture is a set of common behaviors that you observe throughout an organization,” adds Jamie Flinchbaugh, a lean consultant and co-author of the Hitchhikers Guide to Lean. “Culture is getting behaviors right when somebody isn’t looking.”

According to Flinchbaugh, all employees must believe in behaviors and commit to them. When people experience and share the same set of behaviors, collaboration becomes much easier.

“One key attribute of a lean culture is being curious about cause and effect,” Flinchbaugh points out. “Understanding the fundamentals of standardization and valuing a common way is also important. To have a lean culture, employees must constantly be solving both large and small problems in a structured way for the benefit of improvement, instead of firefighting.

“Culture is like a healthy lifestyle,” adds Flinchbaugh. “There are no quick fixes. You have to commit to a long, everyday push to get the behaviors right. It’s easy to take one step forward and two steps back.”

Lean culture is not something that you can implement and forget about; it requires daily feeding. Even Toyota lost its way a few years ago and learned how tenuous lean culture can be after the company went through a period of significant growth.

“I describe a lean culture as a shared set of evolving beliefs and principles that help define how an organization values its customers and employees, and shapes how people work together to increase that value,” says Matt Zayko, a consultant who specializes in lean enterprise improvement.

“Culture is important, because no matter how great your processes and tools are, it is the decisions and actions by individuals that determine the actual execution and delivery of a great product or service to your customer,” claims Zayko. “These decisions and actions are driven by an underlying set of principles and beliefs, and influenced by the behavior of leaders.”

Zayko says one key attribute of a lean culture is the ability for employees to quickly tell “abnormal” from “normal” conditions. “They must be able to rapidly sense problems, signal for the appropriate help, get the help to diagnose the situation and to solve the issue,” he points out.

Hundreds of problems may arise on a daily basis in an assembly plant. How employees approach and manage these issues will help define or destroy culture.  

“A lean culture understands how flow and value streams work,” says Kevin Duggan, founder of the Institute for Operational Excellence. “When there are problems, that culture can resume without the need of management interaction.

“A great analogy is commercial airline pilots,” notes Duggan. “Designing an airplane to fly is like designing the value streams needed to deliver products. Culture occurs with the pilots sitting in the cockpit. Every few hours, a different pair of pilots is tasked with flying the plane from point A to point B.

“If a red light goes off in the cockpit, the pilots don’t call for help and say ‘there’s a problem; we need to have a meeting,’” adds Duggan. “Pilots have standard work instructions and a checklist for when things break down. They know what’s normal and what’s abnormal, and what to do about it.

“The same premise applies to a lean culture in a manufacturing setting,” claims Duggan. “The goal is to have a culture that provides seamless delivery to the customer every day without the need for management intervention.”


Increasing Awareness

More manufacturers today are paying attention to culture. Many experts attribute it to the natural progression of lean thinking.

“Lean manufacturing is now about 20 years into maturity,” says Duggan. “Many companies have reached their plateau. In the past, they saw a lot of quick wins and huge improvements in inventory, cost and productivity.

“Many early lean initiatives were invigorating and got people engaged,” explains Duggan. “Then, all of a sudden, after getting all the low-hanging fruit, companies were left with a lot of process improvements, but nothing strategic.”

“Lean culture has become more popular with manufacturers in recent years,” adds Drew Locher, managing director of Change Management Associates. “Companies were initially enamored with lean tools, such as andon, kaizen, kanban and poka-yoke. But, the tools are just a means to an end, which is lean culture.

“Lean skills, such as PDCA, lead to habit,” says Locher. “From habit comes new norms of behavior (lean culture). It takes an average of four to seven repetitions to create a skill by putting something to short-term memory. But, it takes 17 to 27 repetitions to create habit.”

Sustaining a lean culture requires more than just putting motivational posters and metrics up on a wall. It requires living and practicing lean beliefs and principles every day.

“A lot of manufacturers focus on just the technical aspects of lean principles, such as implementing U-shaped workcells, one-piece flow or kanban systems,” says Zayko. “They don’t focus on the social aspects of lean manufacturing, such as ‘how do we make sure people are rewarded for identifying problems?’ or ‘how do we support those people?’

“If we don’t work to help solve those problems that are being identified, then the social part of the lean system will become very fragile,” warns Zayko.

According to U.S. Synthetic’s Pope, you have to have a vision for what kind of culture you want. He suggests making a list of the types of behaviors that you want to have in your organization. They can be things that you don’t like and want to change.

“Start thinking about the types of behaviors that will drive the types of results that you want,” says Pope. “We’re good at seeing objectives, output and results. But, it’s important to train your eyes to see culture; start looking for ideal behaviors and absence of ideal in your organization.

“Many people are afraid to try, step forward and do something,” claims Pope. “Designing culture is about changing beliefs in people.

“Leaders create culture through their daily interactions,” Pope points out. “You have to see how people think and act every day. Leaders must change the way they think and behave, or culture has no chance of changing. Leaders have to think and act differently. Strategy is just ideas; culture is reality.”

“The biggest misnomer about lean culture is thinking that you can train it into place,” adds Flinchbaugh. “People’s behaviors are a product of their experiences. It includes what their boss does, what their peers do and what they’re incentivized to do.

“Training is important, but it’s not a silver bullet for creating or changing a culture,” argues Flinchbaugh. “Some manufacturers over-rely on training to change their culture, instead of implementing a more comprehensive strategy.”

“One common misunderstanding is to approach culture as a change process and on too wide of a scale,” notes Zayko. “A lot of people think that you can easily change culture just by coming in and doing presentations. You also need to improve the way that work is done in an organization.

“It’s better to start off in a controlled or focused area, experiment and learn about the integration of work and how the people doing the work determine value,” says Zayko. “Then, cultivate the beginnings of this social-technical system that you are creating to another area.

“It is very difficult to create the initial culture if the actual work does not improve on a daily basis,” claims Zayko. “To instill beliefs, you need to believe that positive results are possible by firsthand experience.”