Manufacturing Issues

Culture Key to Continuous Improvement
Old habits die hard. Companies can invest time and money in lean enterprise efforts or other improvements, but if people eventually go back to their old ways, the gains won’t be sustained over time and improvement will stall.

To truly focus on continuous improvement or transform into a lean company, the company’s culture must be addressed. Creating a culture focused on continuous improvement, or a lean culture, addresses both active resistance to change and the tendency of people—like a dieter reaching for ice cream—to revert back to old habits after the initial effort to change has passed.

During the 1980s, companies were implementing quality circles, TQM and other improvement efforts. While today’s changes mirror those of the ‘80s, people are now getting more actively involved in the process of making those changes—something which was missing back then.

Lean culture deals with this issue by acknowledging that culture greatly influences many facets of daily work tasks, as well as improvement efforts. How change is introduced, and the reaction to it, is often determined by a company’s culture.

To better understand the dynamics of a lean culture, it helps to know what business culture is—a pattern of behaviors or problem-solving techniques commonly used by individuals in a company. A lean culture has specific qualities which define the behavior of employees.

A lean culture:

  • Focuses on the customer. Employees need to understand who the customer is. They have internal customers as well as external. How they serve the external customer is directly tied to how they treat each other internally.
  • Is totally committed to continuous improvement. For this kind of commitment to occur, all employees must be involved in the improvement process. This means keeping them enthused about the process and creating a safe environment in which they can make suggestions and take risks.
  • Communicates a clear vision for the company to all employees. This is key. If everyone is going in a different direction or doesn’t understand the vision, it’s difficult to pull together as one team. Senior management needs to identify the vision and help employees understand how their daily tasks relate to that vision.
  • Ensures everyone knows their roles by setting clear standards and expectations. The expected behaviors within the organization need to be spelled out. It should be clear that the new culture is now customer-focused, and that the commitment to continuous improvement is genuine and permanent.

A lean culture also encourages all workers to contribute ideas, responds quickly to suggestions for improvement, works to keep everyone learning, seeks perfection in its products, services and processes and enjoys the visible support of all leaders.

Teams are the basis of the lean culture infrastructure and include a core team, steering team and project teams. Senior management makes up the core team, which works to support the lean process and remove any roadblocks preventing successful implementation. The core team also provides metrics which are directly tied to the company’s success and can be directly affected by employees. The steering team, a cross-functional, multi-level group, drives lean implementation. Finally, project teams work on specific processes to improve efficiency.

The benefits of lean culture and lean leadership include retention of good employees, an improved bottom line and sustainable improvements. Without a lean culture, companies risk spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on technical changes with no buy-in or ownership to sustain the change. They realize short-term gains, but not long-term gains. Lean culture is not abstract, but a real factor in generating long-term results, because changing the culture makes continuous improvement a way of life. IBI