Difficulties with Changing to a Lean Culture: Part VI
Reflection – Why are we doing this?
Where will the “human-side” of Lean hit you? Mike Thelen shares experiences with the guiding principles
for Lean in Part V.
As is the case with any Lean implementation in a Traditional environment, culture (or more specifically
culture change) will be the most difficult obstacle to success. While a company can hire consultants,
develop work teams, and even begin Lean initiatives, if the company only "talks the talk", the initiative
soon becomes just that, talk.
Why do we do Lean? Often we get so focused on making improvements that we forget why we are
making improvements. It becomes a “make an improvement for improvement’s sake” mentality. We
should not forget the guiding principles of our actions, Meeting Customer Needs (Internal/External,
Shareholders and Community) and Respect for People. The improvements should be following the
Rules in Use (1. Highly Defined Activities. 2. Clear and Binary Customer/Supplier Connections. 3.
Simple and Direct Flowpaths. 4. Continuous Improvement using the Scientific Method).
Meeting Customer Needs
Our motiviation should always be to meet a customer’s expectation. At one time, there was a definition of
quality that can be summarized as make exactly what the customer wants. Why should I make a watch
that is water-resistant to depths of 300 feet, when my target customer will never use the watch in more
than a sink full of dishes? How much extra is that customer willing to pay for a feature they do not see as
Seeing the value to our end-use customer and shareholders has never been difficult. However, seeing
the value to our internal customers is the most overlooked aspect of Lean in modern history. What are
the value-added features our employees desire? We can all quote psychology books and label the basic
needs, but what do our employees REALLY want? Is the healthcare system desirable? Is a wellness
plan offered? Is there a pension, retirement, or investment plan that is easy to understand and truly
desirable? Are people proud to say they work for the company?
You may think you know they answers to some of the above questions. You may even know that some
answers you are given are only “lip service”. The real question is what are you doing about those
answers? How does the workforce respond when they get a 2% salary increase and the Executive gets
millions in salary and bonuses? At a previous employer, I recall seeing a newspaper headline taped to a
worker’s bench announcing the million-dollar “bonuses” two corporate presidents received when the two
companies merged. Meanwhile, operator pay was “stabilized” to bring the two companies together.
The last ‘customer’, our community, is also neglected on a regular basis. In Part III, Toyota’s mission
statement was quoted and reviewed. If we have no plans to give back to our community, why would any
community want us to set up shop? Providing jobs is no longer the only necessary commitment from a
business looking to relocate. Questions have to be answered here also, such as: what are we bringing to
the community? How are we making it safer for our children? What future benefits will our company
provide? Over time, will we be considered an asset or a liability to our community?
As with any industry, gear and gearbox manufacturing facilities like my current employer have cleaning
agents, oils and other solid/liquid wastes. From the community’s perspective, how are we handling these
wastes? A recent visit to a furniture manufacturer in the local industrial park revealed that they use
excess sawdust and chips to heat their facility. Their energy consumption is significantly reduced and
they provide materials to several local horse ranches for bedding. In addition, they also provide free
wood scraps for people who need wood to burn. Another local manufacturer is evaluating methods of
recycling heat from exhaust systems to reduce their “energy footprint” within the community.
Respect for People
Beware the foxes…
One of my favorite reminders comes from a mentor and friend: there are three types of Lean participants -
Rabbits, Turtles and Foxes. It is our job as Lean leaders to recognize and handle each accordingly.
Those who buy in and hit the ground running. Rabbits see immediate benefit from Lean and want to get
started yesterday. With a little education on the tools and concepts, they are ready to lead the rest of the
facility on this journey. The challenge they present is keeping them motivated and moving forward. If
improvements don't come fast enough, they'll loose focus. Then you have wild rabbits running all over
the farm. However, they can be fantastic assistance in the early phases of your project, adding
necessary fuel to the fire. I have found rabbits in salaried, hourly, support, direct and even Union labor.
Even today, some of my most valuable Lean leaders are informal, direct and hourly labor employees.
These are the people who get pulled from their “regular” jobs to lead kaizen events and other continuous
improvement projects throughout the entire business, not just their department.
Those who don't buy in for a long time. However, when they are converted, Turtles are often more
valuable than Rabbits. They are often your sustain agents, where Rabbits are your change agents. The
challenge they present is not to judge them too early (often as Foxes). Keep showing them results until
they convert. Once they convert, they will often be your staunchest supporters. They provide excellent
leaders [at times called Lend-Forwards] to other areas of the facility that may be slow to convert.
Traditionally, they are also indirect leaders, those others quietly look to for direction. During a
conversation recently, a direct labor employee (now one of our “turtles”) informed us that he wasn’t very
convinced when we installed the cell, but now he really loves the fact that he knows exactly what he has
to do “now” and “next”.
Those who talk like they buy in, but their actions will [eventually] give them away as non-believers. These
'rascals' can either make decisions which countermand Lean or they can be so bold as to speak out
against Lean to the lower ranks (behind your back), destroying any culture you attempt to build. Foxes
are difficult to convert, and are often those who are moved to better fitting positions or "choose" to move
into a different career.
There is one other significant problem with Foxes, some are 'sleeper' foxes. Think of someone hypnotized
who doesn't remember doing something. These 'sleepers' are often making ‘unlean’ decisions daily and
don't realize what they are doing is counter-productive [some desicions are so natural that we don't really
see how negatively they impact the cultural change potential.]
For Lean Leaders, it's not enough merely to be a good leader, but to recognize who in your facility (or
more importantly, who - above you) is a Leader and who is a Fox. It's all about the respect for people.
You may, but if others in leadership positions don't, they can destroy your Lean implementation..no matter
how good your leadership skills are. That's why Toyota is so selective on their hiring process. They are
looking for people who fit the mold (standardized work?) for leadership positions.
There is no magic pill for Lean initiatives. The Lean process requires time, commitment, and
determination. Companies that cannot envision the long-term commitment to Lean, and only use the
tools for short-term gain, will achieve some limited success. However, without the culture supporting
those tools, the Lean initiative will fail, becoming the "flavor of the week" that everyone knew would not
“Why not make the work easier and more interesting so that people do not have to sweat? The Toyota
style is not to create results by working hard. It is a system that says there is no limit to people’s creativity.
People don’t go to Toyota to ‘work’ they go there to ‘think’” - Taiichi Ohno
Mike Thelen is Lean Facilitator at Aberdeen, SD based Hub City, Inc., a subsidiary of the Regal-Beloit Corporation,
Beloit, WI. He has led Lean Initiatives in positions from Front-Line Supervisor to System Facilitator in various
corporations since 2001. Mike can be reached at email@example.com.