Thanks to Jim Fernandez for sending me this article about Fiat's struggles to get their Italian workers to adopt American work practices – like the practice of showing up for work. The gist of it is that Sergio Marchionne, "fresh from rescuing Chrysler in the United States", "is pushing these workers to be more devoted to their jobs, mirroring a larger effort by the government to improve Italy’s competitiveness and reduce its debt through austerity measures." Now I think the jury is still out – and will be for quite a while – before anyone can say that Chrysler has been 'rescued', but the Fiat folks have been doing the right things. Whether the Italians can embrace lean, however, is another question.
This calls to mind the bigger question of national cultures and lean, begging the question whether lean is for everyone. The first time I saw this model was about twenty years ago when it was used as the basic framework for something called the 'Japan 21' project, which was Japan's manufacturing strategy/policy planning effort for the 21st century. The idea is that the physical and philosophical aspects of the business and the physical and philosophical aspects of the country or region have to complementary.
In many regards it is another one of those not-so-common matters of common sense, but the point is that the physical attributes of the region – geography, transportation networks, natural resources and so forth – have a lot to do with what products can be made and how. Continuing around the chart, the lay of the land has a lot to do with the culture of the country – island nations have a different outlook than landlocked ones, and mountainous countries develop different from ones in which it is easy for people to travel around and interact with each other, and so forth. The culture and outlook of the people has major implications on how the company can and should be managed, and the management of the company has to fit with the manufacturing methods, technology and product line-up.
As obvious as the basic principles may be, examples of an utter failure to grasp the obvious abound. In the USA,it is hard to find a region in which the economic development thinkers have not poured money and effort into an 'innovation center' with grandiose plans of turning their area into the next Silicon Valley … never mind the fact that the only institute of higher education within a hundred miles is a community college and there is no reason to expect an exodus of engineers into the area any time soon.
I have known American purchasing managers who source copper wire from Israeli processors … never mind the fact that the last copper mine in Israel was tapped out in King David's time and that copper products from Israel originated in Peru and have the waste of two trans-Atlantic trips embedded in their cost … an economic scheme that cannot possibly sustain.
To the point of lean, the connection between the two bottom boxes is the issue. In the United States and most western companies people actually believe that Abraham Lincoln was right when he said our country is "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal", which seems to me to be a critical element of engaging and empowering people. While some of us let our egos get in the way, we know deep down that my superior education and higher slot on the org chart does not mean I am a better person than you. I am keenly aware of the fact that at another business across town my wife may be working for your wife, or that in twenty years, your kid might be my kid's boss. It is not that big a stretch for me to respect you and the potential input your knowledge and thinking can provide to the business.
Not all countries are that way, as much as we would like them to be. In many cultures both boss and subordinate honestly believe that the company pecking order is truly a reflection of character and worth. The boss is the boss because he actually is a better man than you, and he deserves your respect but you certainly do not merit his. And as much as we beat ourselves up over the dismal quality of the US education system, it is light years ahead of the compulsory sixth grade public school education the typical Chinese or Mexican worker brings to the job. There is a genuine limit to the contribution a person so completely ignorant can bring to bear on manufacturing's problems.
In many cultures a 'command and control' management system is not only necessary, it is expected and anything else is greeted with complete confusion. The case can be made that Henry Ford changed the culture of the United States, but as a rule, a company is not going to change the culture of its host country. It is up to the company to adapt its management processes and strategy to the culture in which it operates. I suspect a failure to recognize this is the reason for all of the strikes and labor problems Toyota encountered in India. To the point of the Fiat article, I don't think they stand a prayer of bringing Italy around to acting like their American employees.
Of course the implications of this are that, because lean manufacturing management that embraces, includes and empowers employees generates the best results, a lean company that builds a plant in a country with a cultural infrastructure incompatible with lean can never expect to get the same results in that country it gets at home. Global companies would do well to keep this chart squarely before them as they decide where and how they want to do business.