A Framework for Lean Culture

Lean culture is the soul of lean management. With transforming the culture, the tools of lean are lonely notes without a tune.

A good place to start is with a simple framework of what comprises the culture of any organization. Cultures are whole-systems, like the human body or the economy. They are complex, interdependent systems and should be redesigned with an understanding of how the different components interact with one another.

All cultures interact and are influenced by the external environment represented by the outer circle of this diagram. Then there is what you might think of as the body of the culture – the social and technical systems, the organization structure and symbols and stories that reinforce the organizations values. Then there are the habits and knowledge of individuals who comprise the culture. The vision and values promoted by leaders give direction to all of the other components of the culture.


The Structure of Change Efforts

Change efforts are often structured to their own detriment. Continuous improvement efforts often follow a model that is very similar to the Quality Circle idea (repackaged, of course) of forming teams to address specific problems. These teams use good problem-solving methods, make a recommendation and then dissolve. This can and often does result in useful improvements.

The answer is simple: It is much easier for management to appoint a temporary team, with no formal authority, to study and make a recommendation, than it is to look in the mirror and address their own behavior and solve their own problems.

If you want to create serious and sustained change in the culture of the organization, you MUST address the functioning of the line management teams. This is the core management structure, this is where power resides. This is where the big money decisions get made.

Structures that Create Teamwork Follow the Flow

When you consider what an organization does, it takes in input, processes that input, changes its state in some way, then sells the output to a customer. This is the core work of the organization. Everything, and I mean everything, must add value to this core work. The structure of the organization should be designed for one purpose: to facilitate, and not interrupt, the flow of the core work process. Second, they should be designed to maximize the ability to solve problems and make improvements in the process. Ask yourself whether or not the structure of your organization accomplishes these two objectives. Or, does it inhibit the work flow, creating walls, interruptions in decision making, and separating people who need to solve problems as a unified team?

The redesign of this process resulted in one project owner team, who managed the project from womb to tomb. They brought in expert teams as those teams were needed, but they maintained the horizontal view and they were given the necessary authority to make the important decisions that guided the process. That process now takes less than half of the time it did before redesign. The primary reason for this success was the creation of organizational structure and decision processes that enabled rather than disrupted the process.

By starting from the bottom and seeking to optimize the ability of each team level, you will find that you often need fewer levels than when you started. You will also create a team structure that follows the flow, rather than interrupting the flow. You will create not only a customer focused process, but a customer focused organization design.