We see culture as an accumulation of collective experience that, over time, creates a system of beliefs, norms, speech, values and artifacts. Culture determines how things are done and problems are solved. Note that this definition says it is culture, not Lean programs, that determine how things are done and problems solved. This may not be the case in the short run, while a Lean program is being introduced, but it will be inescapably true in the long term, when sustainability is essential. In spite of what the Lean converts say,
Lean does not naturally lead to a stronger culture. In fact, the contrary is often true.
This is because the cultural dissonance between the Lean concept of Kaizen and American culture is profound. If care is not taken, this dissonance will inevitably become a cultural spirit killer. When organizations run out of spirit, Lean programs die and they move on to the next thing.
Sure, some significant gains will still be achieved, but the organization will never rise to the level of Lean maturity where Lean Thinking becomes a way of life — “the way we do things around here” — embedded in the culture. How did Toyota sustain Lean for over 60 years? As the guide suggested to my friend, it was not the superiority of the techniques, it was culture, pure and simple.
The source of Lean’s cultural dissonance in America has its roots in Masaaki Imai’s 1986 book, Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success. Kaizen refers to the Japanese concept of never-ending, continuous improvement. Imai took Americans to task for our failure to understand the power of Kaizen and for not seeing how it animated Lean. He also clearly told us that Kaizen was a Japanese cultural inflection, but somehow we missed that part of his message. Americans took Imai’s Kaizen message to heart and Kaizen became a pillar of Lean programs everywhere. As a result, for over 20 years, we have inadvertently sabotaged our organizational cultures.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Randall Benson & Steve Gandara
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