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.
From the author’s experiences in Japan and with Japanese organizations, we can see Kaizen’s clear cultural resonance and spiritual underpinning to the idea of never-ending continual improvement. In many ways, it is the secular rendition of the path to enlightenment as embodied in Eastern myth, philosophy and religion. The Japanese tea ceremony is another secular embodiment of this idea. Kaizen is no mere technique; it is a cultural norm or motif. In Japan, participating in Kaizen resonates with cultural beliefs, norms and values. We would argue that Kaizen is a part of the Japanese soul.
However, in the West, Kaizen can be a cultural disaster that derails Lean. We have observed that so many American employees see never-ending, continuous improvement as akin to drudgery. Kaizen conjures images of a squirrel on its wheel or Sisyphus rolling the boulder uphill only to lose his footing, fall to the bottom and begin again. Unlike the Japanese experience, Kaizen weighs down Westerners’ spirit. It has negative cultural resonance.
Many Western business cultures also suffer from years of heavy handed command and control by leaders mandating their desires top-down to a lesser engaged, change-resisting workforce. These types of cultures not only resist any perceived top down mandate with passive head nodding followed by a return to “their own” better way, they resist them aggressively with organized labor initiatives and purposed (as well as subconscious) performance slowdowns. All of the above result in anything but the enthusiastic breakthroughs and empowering victories resulting from the dramatic waste reduction that Lean produces in Eastern cultures.
Additionally, with the advent of the social media boom taking hold in the workforce, consider the following occurrences as they may impact your Lean intervention:
1975: No wrongful termination suits.
1989: General Motors sets new standard paying out $40 million class action discrimination legal settlement that began with a single disgruntled employee and grew to 3,800 plaintiffs.
1990: 27% of all lawsuits had wrongful termination implications.
1999: Coca-Cola raised the bar paying $156 million in similar settlement.
2011: Egyptian government overthrown via social media.
Now that the Social Media Boom is on, the resistance of one angry disgruntled employee could virtually wipe out an entire Lean initiative.
TO BE CONTINUED
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