Creating a Lean Culture

Everyone recognizes that creating a Lean culture is the responsibility of the top leaders of an organization, and that creating a Lean culture is difficult. Much has been written by me and others about the need for business leaders to do this hard work if they wish to succeed with Lean management. Yet, as we learned long ago, inspiring leaders to do hard work remains a critical weakness in our efforts to advance the adoption and practice of Lean management. Why does this weakness continue to exist and what can be done about it?

In the two previous blog posts (“Winning with Lean” and “Psychological Safety and Lean“) I described how leaders do not need Lean management to win in the marketplace and how it is not in their interest to create psychological safety for workers. In other words, the blog posts describe how business leaders do not want to do the hard work of transforming from classical management to Lean management and creating psychological safety for all employees. Likewise, leaders do not want to do the hard work of creating a Lean culture.

These are facts that Lean people wish were not true. Wishing has not and will not advance the spread of Lean management. The sooner we accept these facts and gain a deep understanding of their causes, the sooner countermeasures can be devised and implemented.

The simple fact of the matter is that most top leaders want to avoid hard work. When you’re at the top, you do the easy stuff. I expect that many, if not most business leaders who know of Lean management would, deep down, like the company to have a Lean culture. However, their conscience weighs against that consideration and instead favors the status quo. In most cases, it is easier work for leaders to maintain the status quo.

Over the three decades since Lean management been in existence, it is apparent that Lean people have had difficulty accepting the fact that business leaders have different ideas, interests, goals, and objectives than workers. The institution of leadership, to which top business leaders belong, has a history dating back thousands of years, and most of its traditions, including many archaic traditions, remain with us today.

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How business leaders dressed 500 years ago (King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I). Click on image to enlarge. Image source: Wikipedia

One tradition that no longer prevails is how leaders dress. Business leaders no longer dress as shown in the image at right, intended to establish the greatest separation possible between the Monarch and the commoners. Yet the royal attitude, mindset, sentiments, and personal and organizational decision-making criteria remain largely the same now as then. And 500 years ago, as today, business leaders (Kings and Queens) had lots of people at their service — chamberlains, courtiers, equerries, ladies-in-waiting, valets, servants, protectors, loyalists, etc., as well as an assortment of hangers-on — whose job it was to make their work easier. If you committed the ghastly mistake of making the King or Queen’s life more difficult, you lost your job, your power, your wealth, or your head. Similar outcomes happen in organizations today. People promoting Lean — revealing the truth about waste — make business leaders’ job more difficult. And all too often the concerned, well-meaning employee, speaking truth to power, suffers negative personal and professional consequences.

The culture of an organization is established by the institution of leadership, of which the top leader, at any given point in time, is its faithful and trustworthy representative. If a company is successful at creating a Lean culture, the inevitable changes in top managers or changes in company ownership will restore the organization to the culture that is characteristic of the institution of leadership. Unfortunately, it is an unreasonable expectation to think that more than a few unicorn leaders would adopt Lean management in its full form. That is why it is so important for Lean people to understand the institution of leadership and its much favored traditional form of organizational control — classical management — because it maximizes leaders’ rights and privileges. You can’t effectively confront something that you know little or nothing about.

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