The Lean Office Blog

Lean Culture and Waffles

Today’s post highlights several elements of a true Lean culture.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

– Peter Drucker

I bet Peter Drucker could make some good waffles. . . I, on the other hand, made the worst-tasting waffles in world history this past weekend. We have canisters in my home set out on the kitchen counter, and one of them has the word “Sugar” prominently displayed on the side. The problem is, SOMEbody (definitely me) refilled the sugar canister with SALT the last time it was emptied. I happily followed the recipe, adding a half cup of “sugar” to the dry ingredients, slowly stirring the ingredients together to not overwork the batter, beating the egg whites into soft peaks, etc. In fact, it wasn’t until I proudly removed the first waffle from the iron and placed it in front of my wife for a taste test that the discovery was made. We’ve been married for quite a while now, but let’s just say I “lost a few trust points” as she tried to figure out if it was an honest mistake or an awful prank.

The above story is an excellent illustration of something that happens all too often in the Lean community, as well. Many people are exposed to a methodology that is called “Lean”, and it also looks like the real thing from the outside with tools like 5S, value stream mapping, and visual management in use. In the same way I fell for the label on the container, and the same general look and texture of what was inside the container, most people aren’t able to “see” what type of Lean is being implemented, sometimes until it’s too late, and the culture has been established. This post will provide you with a few ways to conduct a “taste test” of your organization’s Lean culture, and determine if it’s sweet or salty.

We recently created a Lean Assessment to help companies determine if The Lean Office is right for their organization, and one of the categories we focus heavily on is the company culture. Companies embark on Lean journeys for a variety of reasons, but many companies stop far short of becoming a complete Lean enterprise. They capture quick wins from using tools like value stream mapping and 5S, but they don’t develop a Lean culture or Lean Management System to make sure those quick wins are sustained. In fact, just implementing the Lean tools alone can often lead to some disastrous consequences, like disengaged employees who don’t trust management, and a general dislike of all things Lean – very salty waffles, indeed!

Building a Sweet Lean CultureLean Culture

But there’s hope for those who wish to move beyond the surface-level, low hanging fruit
and become a true Lean enterprise. A Lean enterprise is one where everyone in your organization is working together towards a common goal of eliminating waste while delivering truly excellent products or services to the customer, all while setting a new standard of respect for people-employees and managers alike. So, what types of things characterize a company with a healthy Lean culture? Below are three characteristics we’ve used to help diagnose a healthy Lean culture:

  • Employee empowerment – employees in a Lean culture are empowered, even expected, to identify and help solve problems in the work. Salty Lean companies bring in “experts” to do the improvement work, and rarely engage their own people by asking for input or feedback on a proposed solution. People working in this environment are a huge untapped resource for improvement ideas, but are either too scared to raise their hand, or realize nothing would be done about it if they did. Lean organizations see their own people as the true process experts, and would never consider implementing a solution without discussing it with the people doing the work first. In fact, most suggestions for improvement come from the team doing the work.
  • Trust – a strong sense of trust exists across all levels of a Lean enterprise. Salty Lean companies operate on a mixture of fear and uncertainty. In this environment, people get scared to suggest or try improvements because they may not work, or they may work too well (see next bullet). A Lean enterprise creates a safe environment where employees are encouraged to try things in controlled experiments. Because of this, as Taiichi Ohno says, “People don’t go to Toyota to ‘work’ they go there to ‘think’.” Imagine an entire company where everyone shows up to work every day thinking about how to do things better, with the full trust of the organization behind them. Powerful, isn’t it?
  • Job status – in a true Lean culture, improvements are not followed by workforce reductions. Salty Lean companies do their worst damage by using Lean tools to make their processes more efficient, and then laying off employees who are no longer essential. Of course, we know that those processes won’t remain efficient for long without a Lean Management System in place, and the remaining employees will feel scared about being next on the chopping block and also more stressed as they are asked to do more without support. Employees in a Lean enterprise trust that if their workload is reduced or their job removed altogether through improvement, they will be reassigned (or promoted) to tackle new problems.

Lean tools are an essential component of your Lean journey. After all, my waffle recipe called for a teaspoon of salt. However, they are not sufficient. You need to be focused on cultivating a Lean culture to go along with the tools.

What about your organization, is your version of Lean culture salty or sweet?

Take our Lean Assessment now to find out!  Lean Assessment

The Lean Office is a software tool designed to help “sweet” Lean organizations  who have moved beyond tools and events, and are implementing their own Lean Management System. Click here to find out more!

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