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Jon Miller

Six Sigma

How to Sustain a Lean Culture After 10 Years

At no time is it safe to put the program on cruise control

Published: Thursday, September 23, 2010 - 15:28

I am in Japan helping to lead one of our lean manufacturing benchmarking trips. What I took away from the debriefing from yesterday’s lean benchmarking visit was a series of lessons on how to sustain a lean culture after 10 years. The company we visited had made a few defining choices, played its cards well so to speak, and this shows in how it operates its lean management system and sustains its lean culture. These can be summarized as follows:

Bottom up trumps top down

The early years of a lean transformation tend to be directive and driven by a senior leadership or a compelling business need, such as a crisis. This was the case for this company. Crises come and go, as do senior managers. There should always be a top-down element to kaizen, but in the case of this company, the major focus is on bottom-up engagement and continuous daily improvement at the workplace. Senior management’s role is to make sure these small improvements add up to something tangible and strategically meaningful.

Recognition trumps reward

This company has a very active kaizen suggestion program. The implemented ideas are displayed visibly in the hallways and, the company makes great efforts to recognize people for their creativity and efforts. Many companies struggle to sustain suggestion programs because they remain on the reward side of the people-engagement chasm. Over the long haul people find greater satisfaction from recognition, a resource that costs little and can be spent almost infinitely.

Simple slogans trump specific targets

Although W. Edwards Deming, Ph.D., urged us not to manage by slogans and exhortations, a surprising number of long-living lean transformations use short, simple slogans. The key, it seems, is to make the slogan big-picture and general enough to require people to think about how it applies to them.

Complaining trumps self-satisfaction

The people in an organization that is 10 years into a lean transformation should not be satisfied with their condition. A happy lean culture is a faltering lean culture. People should be happy, but there should be a distinct sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Frequent and brief complaining followed by a 5 Whys root-cause analysis and taking corrective action characterize a sustainable lean culture.

Structured program trumps invisible behaviors

It’s tempting to think that a formal, structured lean program is no longer necessary after 10 years of practicing lean because it is now “in the blood” and does not require special promotion or attention. However, this is rarely the case. Nature abhors a vacuum, and corporations seem to abhor a vacuum within improvement programs. Best to keep the lean program alive and continuously improve it as a support mechanism.

Pedal to the metal trumps cruise control

Thomas Jefferson said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” and coincidentally this is also the price of a sustained lean culture. At no time is it safe to put the program on cruise control. Corners always want to be cut, people naturally want to do what is easy, and without strong leadership to remind people that sometimes the important things are not easy, a lean culture will not sustain.

Developing people trumps driving results

After 10 years, even those who merely paid the program lip service notice the cause-and-effect connection and begin to believe. It takes time to develop people. When you can point to people who have developed within the organization and are driving results, this is a sign that the elements of a sustainable lean culture are in place.


About The Author

Jon Miller’s picture

Jon Miller

Jon Miller is co-founder of Gemba Research LLC where he leads development efforts including consulting solutions, training materials, and establishing internal consulting standards. Miller was born in Japan and lived there for 18 years. In 1993 Miller was fortunate to start his career working with consultants who were students of Taiichi Ohno. Since 1998 he has led dozens of lean transformation projects in a wide range of industries. Miller has taught kaizen in 15 countries for more than 15 years. He is a frequent contributor of articles to a variety of publications and written more than 800 articles on lean manufacturing, kaizen, and the Toyota Production System on Gemba’s blog.


Lean Culture Sustained after 10 years

I totally agree with Jon Miller's findings on sustaining the lean culture. Any culture is maintained by constant reminders of the core values and behaviors acceptable within that culture. When we take our eye off the ball, we lose the ability to pass that ball effectively to others. The threads of the lean culture may not be forged in steel, but they must at least be as structured as a spider web, able to identify opportunities wherever they appear. I commend Jon's company for the 10 year run. May the future continue to be successful.