How to Sustain Lean Culture and Practices

This past week I was at one of my favorite clients, a Merck pharmaceutical plant in Pennsylvania. They have been on the lean journey for more than sixteen years, long before anyone called it “lean.” One issue that they are now addressing is the issue of sustainability. Every company faces this issue sooner or later. In our Western culture we are used to jumping on issues, methods or fads for a period of time, going through a training process, and then declaring ourselves DONE!

Of course, there is great satisfaction in being “done.” But, “done” is a direct contradiction to continuous improvement and lean is continuous improvement. Honda and Toyota are still seeking the next level of improvement. They are not done.

To address the sustainability of the lean process we are looking at this model that defines the different components of a culture. At the core is the system of beliefs among the members of the organization. On the outside is the external environment with changes in technology, economics and other trends to which every company must adapt. The sustainability of any system is based on both its ability to adapt to a changing environment and its ability to stay on the course of its core values.

A key issue faced by this client is how to maintain a system of beliefs that encourages and motivates its members to engaged in the work of continuous improvement.

Promoting or maintaining beliefs or a value system of an organization is a key function of leadership. If you were to recommend actions to leaders, or the organization in general, what would you recommend?

Here are a few actions that leaders can take:

1. Promote Creative Dissatisfaction:

In behavioral psychology it is understood that a level of dissatisfaction is required for motivation. In other words you can satiate a behavior. Someone may be motivated to work for ice cream, for example. If you give someone enough ice cream, as much as they might love ice cream, after a period of time of gorging themselves, they will yell “Enough!” They will achieve a state of satiation. If we are satisfied with the state of ourselves or our company, we are likely to slow down our improvement efforts. Some level of dissatisfaction is required.

There is always a gap between where we are and where we could be. No matter how smart, how successful we are, there is always a higher level of achievement. To the degree that we are aware of the gap between current and potential state, we are not satisfied. We become creatively dissatisfied. In other words we have a drive to improve and move toward the better condition.

Leaders have to do two seemingly contradictory things at the same time. They must reinforce the good work and success of improvement efforts. At the same time, they have to raise the bar, and point to the gap between where we are and where we could be and state clearly that we will close that gap by practicing our core beliefs.

2. Learn from Church – The Need and Power of Repetition:

I was with the president of a major transportation company and we were discussing his role in managing the culture. He said that he had communicate the desired culture and values more than once and didn’t understand why employees couldn’t “get it.” Without thinking deeply, I spontaneously asked, “How often do you go to church?” The moment it came out of my mouth I realized it was probably a dumb thing to say. He looked stunned also.

Every religion, in every part of the globe, throughout all human history, has had a Sunday church service. It may not have been Sunday and it may have been in a synagogue, mosque, tent, or home. But, every religion has a regular drum beat, a regular meeting to remind people of their core values and “right” behavior. God must know that it takes us about seven days to forget what is important. If every religion does this same thing, it must say something about our human nature. Why would it be different in large or small organizations?

As bothersome as it may be to leaders, beating the drum, conducting regular “church services” is your job. It is your job to frequently and regularly remind your followers that putting the customer first is a core value; or that continuous improvement is a core value. There are a hundred ways this can be done, through public meetings, company newsletters or video broadcasts, you can communicate what is important. If we can’t remember the Ten Commandments (can you?) why do you think employees will remember your ten core values?

3. I Once Was Lost, But Now I am Found – The Power of Testimony

I know some readers may cringe at this, but think about it. In many churches, and in other religions, there is a practice of “testifying.” I was blind, but now I see. I sinned, but now I am redeemed. Why was this important? What about it worked?

If you have studied social learning theories, particularly of Albert Bandura, you know that there is a great deal of research about modeling, learning from the behavior and consequences of others. If we see that someone was in a bad situation, then they did something to change, then they experienced success and happiness, we learn from that sequence and we are more likely to be motivated to do the same thing. This is what it means to be a model. And it is why the preacher called upon the person who was once the town drunk to stand and testify to the evils of his ways and his new found life. If he can do it, I can do it.

How can this apply to sustain lean?

At my Merck client they have regular “face-to-face” gatherings at which the plant manager addresses and updates employees. This is a good occasion to promote the core beliefs of lean. As we formed the team structure around work processes, we found that there were a number of administrative people who did not fit on natural work teams. So, they were formed into an admin team. At first, they didn’t understand why they were a team, or how scorecards, process mapping or others lean methods applied to them. However, they discovered opportunities to improve processes and they did. At a recent face-to-face their story was told and they were recognized for their effort and success.

Other teams have wondered whether there was any real contribution they could make. This example, this testimony, is motivating to the doubting Thomases sitting in their pews in the back row.

4. Define the Game – Declare the Heroes and Heroines:

Everyone is trying to figure out the rules of the game and what will define winning in their situation. As a leader in your organization it is your job to define the rules of the game. But, more important it is your job to recognize, celebrate, shout about, the winners or heroes of the game.

Can you imagine the broadcast of a Super Bowl and it comes to end with the announcers pointing to the score and saying, “Well that’s it folks.” That wouldn’t be very entertaining or motivating. The broadcast crew is always ready with camera and microphones to immediately interview the most valuable player, someone who set a record, or scored the winning touchdown. We want to see their faces. We want to hear from them what happened and how they experienced it. We want to share in their emotions. Without that, its boring!

In your plant or your company, who are the heroes? Who set a record recently? Who won the game? How were they celebrated? Believe it or not, you are the broadcaster. You are the producer and announcer of the show. It is your job to celebrate the winners and put them on TV for everyone to see. If there is no celebration of heroes, do not expect heroic efforts from your people.

We all learn vicariously. We learn from the success and celebration of others. It is the job of leadership to make it matter for all employees. This reinforces the core beliefs of the organization.

How have you sustained lean by promoting the core beliefs in your organization? What have your leaders found to be successful (or not)?