Lean has proven to be a solid and effective process to activate the latent power in Eastern cultures and has also significantly improved performance in any number of Western organizations. With Kaizen, Toyota built a breakthrough culture, but the same will not work for most American organizations. The West must build their unique counterpart. The Western counterpart to Kaizen is the Adventurous Journey. It suggests individualism, self-agency, a prize to be won, innovation, and breakthrough. It works because Americans share values of autonomy, mastery and higher purpose. That is why the Lewis and Clark Expedition is America’s epic poem. Adventure, not Kaizen, lifts our spirits, excites our imagination and gives us meaning. In these types of cultures people set and achieve goals and work to continuously improve as a way of life rather than a mandated top down process. They value the spirit of each the individual (not just their function) as well as solve problems together in huddles as teams rather than running to silos when crises arise.
Time and again, experience has shown us that when organizations engage Western employees where a high performance culture exists in the adventure of innovation — journeys of exploration, discovery and application of the prize — those employees tap their imagination, creativity, and passion to make spectacular breakthroughs. Team members often describe a deep sense of fulfillment and characterize these journeys as the high point of their careers. These are culturally resonant values that actuate spirit.
We are not suggesting the techniques of continuous improvement are not powerful and necessary. They are essential to develop and optimize processes. However, when organizations promote Kaizen to the level of guiding value, they may get compliance, but spirit will be diminished. Kaizen just does not touch our hearts unless our culture resonates with it. Kaizen will not foster high-performance cultures because we thrive in a culture of discovery and innovation, not continuous improvement. In the West, breakthrough happens when innovation and adventure are the cultural norms. However, when we combine Western cultural inflections with Lean principles, we can achieve breakthrough results. In fact, where innovation and adventure are already a part of the culture, Lean principles thrive.
Our recommendations are not new, but they are still difficult to heed. Consider this statement from a business classic:
Today everyone seems to complain about the decline of American productivity. Examples of industries in trouble are numerous and depressing. Books claim that Japanese management practices are the solution to America’s industrial malaise. But we disagree. We don’t think the answer is to mimic the Japanese. … We need to relearn the old lessons about how culture ties people together and gives them meaning and purpose in their day-to-day lives.
– Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy, Corporate Cultures, 1982.
Eastern or Western, Japanese or American, Lean, Six-Sigma or any other change initiative; CULTURE is the bottom line that determines success & sustainability or failure. Regardless of the process deployed cultural norms that insure success are:
- Seeing change and conflict as opportunities for growth and innovation. Embracing barriers head on while asking to be held accountable for ultimate success and the greater good.
- Developing a belief in an unlimited potential for growth and development. Developing the habit of setting lofty goals to break through to higher levels.
- Developing deep compassion for each other as fellow human beings with unique gifts. Valuing the truth above political agendas or even personal acceptance. Bonding with companions on the journey.
- Aggressively seeking to fulfill higher purpose rather than competing with each other. Working collaboratively to create something better.
- Leading with positive aspirations and deep passion rather than mere compliance. Surrendering defensive agendas and embracing adventure.
These norms of belief and the behaviors that follow lie at the soul of any culture that exhibits spirit and produces breakthrough. Once it can be solidly established in any culture, Lean or any other change related initiative will not just thrive, it will spark breakthrough. Implementing change initiatives without prior establishment of these cultural norms kills spirit and thwarts breakthrough. We cannot allow dissonant aspects of Lean to kill spirit. Otherwise, as the culture expert, Harrison Owen, stated, “When you’re out of spirit, you’re out of business.”
Today, Lean culture too often refers to “more-with-less” and “then-more-still” thinking camouflaged in warm and fuzzy HR psychobabble or complex consultant-speak. It is not the way to support Lean. High-performance Lean environments demand simple, scalable, proven processes that change cultures and embrace Lean principles, producing quick sustainable results. If you do not develop a Lean-compatible culture, a consequent Lean-process implosion is inevitable. But when high-performance culture is combined with Lean Thinking, you can anticipate a surge of innovation as Lean ideas are combined and recombined with employee-driven innovations. Lean culture combined with Lean process yields breakthrough and sustainability. Lean process, without Lean culture, will generate some improvement, but will be followed by drudgery and ultimately the Inevitable Lean Process Implosion.
The path is yours. Choose wisely.
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