Lean Transformations Group

Lean Continuous Improvement as Culture

This column is going into uncharted territory – some might call it the dark side – of the organizations where we work – their cultures. The question I want to raise is, Exactly what is the nature of a culture that could be called a problem solving culture? In an earlier column I talked about Toyota having a “culture of responsibility.” Now I want to try to describe what I believe that animal looks and acts like based on my experience, and beyond that, what contributes to its development.

I’ll start with what I understand an organization’s culture to be. It is a set of assumptions-in-operation. By that I mean it consists of the generally shared beliefs, both spoken and tacitly held, about how things really work, are done and not done, and how the people doing the work should deal with one another as they go about the business of the organization. It is a set of guidelines that is generally more assumed than stated. That means we are going to have to focus on the social and people side of an organization to “go to the gemba” of its culture.

Machines, materials and methods do not make and hold assumptions. People work in the mechanical and technical systems and the organizational structures of a company and over time develop shared assumptions about what it means to live and work there. The people – all the people, not just management – are the keepers of the culture of an organization. But executives and managers are without doubt the key contributors to the development of a company’s culture.

In his book on change leadership, Beyond the Wall of Resistance, Rick Maurer refers to Douglas McGregor’s work in the 1960’s describing opposing sets of assumptions that managers can have about human nature. In The Human Side of Enterprise, McGregor distinguishes between Theory X assumptions which hold that people are basically irresponsible at work and have to be directed and controlled to perform as needed; and Theory Y assumptions, which are based on the belief that the desire to be responsible, to contribute and perform effectively, is basic to our human nature and the way most people will approach their work if allowed. Maurer suggests that in spite of fifty years of management thought and talk to the contrary, many people and managers continue to be Theory Xers in “sheep’s clothing.” If Theory X assumptions are indeed still in operation, how would they affect managers’ decisions about giving employees problem solving responsibility?

To illustrate by contrast, consider the response by the former chairman of Toyota, Fujio Cho, when John Shook asked him about the keys to lean leadership. Mr. Cho suggested three simple behaviors. First is, “Go SEE.” Managers including senior managers must spend time on the plant floor to know the actual conditions they are trying to manage. The second is, “Ask Why.” It is critical for managers to question their observations, interpretations and assumptions as well as those of others by persistently asking what facts underlie them. And the third is, “Show Respect.”

The first two behaviors can be considered part of technical problem solving but the third is clearly on the social side and is not often part of our problem solving thinking. With regard to “Respect” Shook further explains that Mr. Cho is saying, “Respect your people” – the people who do the work and create the value in your company. What does it mean to actually “respect your people” as part of your way of managing in a more concrete form than saying, “our people are our greatest asset”? Drawing on both the Toyota example and my experience with the ups and downs of lean thinking in North American I would suggest three interpretations.

First, Toyota’s focus on eliminating waste ensures that the work is organized so it does not waste the time and effort of employees. One of the basic principles in establishing standard work is that the operator should not wait on or work for the machine. Machine cycling should be planned to allow the operator to do other value-added work and free him or her to attend to more important things like safety and first-time-through quality. Also it is management’s responsibility to organize the work flow and work place starting from the needs of the operator out so that he or she can the perform value-added work with as little interruption as possible. This responsibility extends to organizing work processes and information flow to assure the operator can move and perform safely and to minimize rework due to unclear instructions, standards and status indicators.

A second manifestation of respect for the employee is to start from the positive rather than the negative assumption about his or her willingness and ability to take on responsibility beyond simply carrying out tasks as instructed. That basically means operating from the assumption that employees who resist taking on greater responsibility when allowed are the exception not the rule. Daniel Pink in his 2009 book, Drive, reviews fifty to sixty years of study into what motivates people at work, and reports that the most effective motivators, particularly for work that requires thinking, are not extrinsic rewards and financial incentives but the basic human intrinsic drives for autonomy (having some control over their work), mastery (the chance to grow and to increase capability) and purpose (feeling you are contributing to something bigger than yourself.) This would seem to indicate that managers and executives would do well to start from the assumption that their employees want no less than they themselves want in their work lives.

The third, and most critical interpretation, is to give people the respect of recognizing they can and will think if allowed. It has been said the most flattering and affirming thing you can do for another person is actually listen to and acknowledge what he or she is saying. I suggest there is a degree of respect beyond that and it is to demonstrate you assume there is thought behind what they say and it is worth attending to. In a work environment that takes the form of first giving employees responsibility for recognizing and addressing problems within the scope of their work and their work area and second, and even more important, not taking back the responsibility after giving it. The impact of discounting employees by taking over problem solving responsibility is so great that it is better to never give it in the first place. Managers need to be especially sensitive to this because it is so easy to do. Even suggesting an enhancement to any employee’s idea can be disempowering.

Skeptical that the assumptions leaders hold make a difference? Consider this research, which has been repeated numerous times with groups of school kids. Teachers are given groups of kids who have demonstrated on tests and through their work that they have equal abilities. The kids are randomly divided into two groups and the teachers told one group has less ability than the other. Within a short time the group credited with higher ability is consistently outperforming the other group. The factor that is observed to have the greatest influence on the performance of the two groups is the difference in the way the teachers treat the groups depending on whether they have high or low expectations of them. Are managers any less likely to be influenced by their unconscious and unquestioned assumptions?

Managers and executives are not evil people who set out to create organizations that diminish the value and human dignity of their employees. In many ways they are victims of the assumptions they hold as well. The Theory X underlying assumptions about employees that were prevalent in management thinking for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century may be so deeply engrained in our organizations and management practices that we are not conscious of their influence. But if the people who do the value-creating work in a company are indeed its most valuable asset, it is going to be difficult for companies to realize their full business potential if they waste or ignore much of their employees’ potential to contribute.

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