This weekend I attended the quarterly board meeting of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence. AME is a practitioner-based organization that puts on the largest lean conference in North America, and all board members are or were shop floor grunts from very diverse industries. In addition to the usual association governance reviews, we generally spend quite a bit of time formally and informally discussing observations of the manufacturing world from our varied perspectives. There are always fascinating stories, such as employee motivation issues when implemeting lean in the prison industries and how takt time methods are used to optimize aircraft carrier mess hall activities to increase sortee rates.
Remarkably, or perhaps not, this weekend’s discussions centered on the importance of culture… something that Bill and I have been harping on for the last several months. I’d like to think that the lean community may be finally waking up to the importance of culture.
We concluded that the number of North American companies that come close to being like Toyota can probably be counted on one hand, and it may surprise people to learn that there are also very few Japanese companies that come close to Toyota. As Bill points out in his book, it’s especially difficult for larger public companies to truly implement lean when constrained by U.S. accounting regulations. However a major differentiator between unsuccessful and successful lean, or between looking lean and truly being lean, is culture.
You can find a consultant to teach you about lean tools on pretty much every street corner. A kaizen event here, a value stream map there, and perhaps they’ll even get their hands dirty by helping you do a 5S cleanup. If they’re really good you might even contract with them for several months… to just teach you all of the major tools. Significant improvements will occur. You may even get "certified" for whatever that’s worth. Maybe you’ll even win a reward… or a few… just like bankrupt Delphi.
But the "lean transformation" will fail… because sustaining and building on the improvements requires a culture of continuous improvement.
Creating a culture change is hard, and it takes time. By its nature that is contrary to the business model of most consultants and changemeisters, internal and external, which require immediate payment… which generally requires the client to see an near-term tangible improvement. How many of us would hire someone that said "hire me, and after we work together for a couple years we might start to see some improvement"? But that’s what we need.
As one board member succinctly said today, we need a way to "create an infectious injection of Toyota DNA". Most of us know that to create culture change we need to "inject" knowledge and tools and passion into the roughly 30% of a typical organization that wants to change, and get them to "infect" that culture into the 60% that are ambivalent and can be converted, and then "kill off" the remaining 10% that will poison the organization if they aren’t removed. Not exactly what happens in a 5-day kaizen event. Culture change is a radical realignment of the organizational psyche, and it requires the complete commitment of leadership.
The handful of truly lean companies live, eat, and drink continuous improvement. If you are truly committed to helping your company or client achieve world class excellence, and if your company or client is similarly committed, you’ll confront the challenge of cultural change.