What is a Lean Culture?
Many people still believe that applying Lean in a public, not-for-profit or charity organisation is about sorting out processes or systems. Some think that it might involve some techniques or tools and will result in streamlined performance that could reduce jobs. The reality of a Lean organisation is however very different. It is one where motivated employees contribute on a daily basis to better serving their customers, improving performance and methodically rising to sector challenges. Lean is a philosophy, a set of tools and a management culture.
Why is it important?
There is a wealth of organisational research demonstrating the overwhelming impact of culture on performance. If cultural aspects of change are ignored, they are doomed to failure. As has been said: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast and dinner’. Developing any approach to change that omits culture is simply a waste of time, money, effort and goodwill. Indeed, many recent organisational failures across our sectors involve numerous cultural dimensions. These include leaders ignoring symptoms, a lack of willingness to raise concerns or listen, and creating employee disengagement. In other words, dysfunctional cultures.
What creates a Lean Culture?
McGregor said that if people are treated consistently in terms of basic assumptions, they come to behave according to those assumptions in order to make their world stable and predictable. This view is at the heart of a Lean culture. One where leaders and managers consistently and persistently:
- Set a clear path for the organisation based on the needs of those they serve
- Create a stable working environment where teams measure their own performance
- Role-model openness and transparency
- Seek to understand performance in order to improve rather than blame
- Devolve decision-making and give staff the tools, time and space to engage fully
- Share in and celebrate success.
It is not the intention of this article to explore how to transform a culture, but it is integral to any client Lean programme we support.
Evidencing a Lean Culture
Accurate and useful cultural monitoring is notoriously challenging. How therefore can we assess our progress as part of any organisation-wide Lean transformation? The approach we advocate at Ad Esse is to establish a cultural baseline as part of an initial diagnostic, then at appropriate intervals reassess cultural components. We use a number of qualitative and quantitative measures that indicate progress. Whilst not all exclusive to Lean Thinking, these indicators provide valuable emblematic evidence, and include:
- People measures such as turnover, grievances, sickness/absence and skill levels
- Specific perception measures such as employee surveys, leaders’ how Lean Am I questionnaires, feedback from appraisals/1:1s etc.
- Transparency of links between purpose and practice
- Numbers of suggestions, new ideas implemented
- Use of visual management (e.g. number and quality of Information Centres); use of tools such as 5S to create an appropriate physical or electronic environment for customers and employees
- Use of meetings – number, attendance, time used, value created
- Quality of documentation – amount, simplicity, take-up
- Communication – channels, messages, take up
- Existence of teams and team working – how organised and managed
This list is not exhaustive, and is always customised to an organisation’s needs.
If an organisation is serious about changing its culture, senior managers need to agree a set of culture measures that address the main issues that they are trying to change. If your biggest issue is a silo culture between teams, look for measures that track cooperation and attitudes between teams. If your main issue is poor levels of engagement, track attendance at Information Centre meetings, improvements implemented at team level, etc.
The act of determining the right measures will force the senior team to confront the culture change they want to tackle.
Applying Lean principles in any organisation cannot be fully achieved without addressing cultural aspects. All of our experience points to the effectiveness of making cumulative situational changes that create new and desirable behaviours and ultimately attitudes. Over time, which can be quite short, you can address even the most entrenched of negative cultures, leading to an environment where customers receive excellent service and where employees want to work.