2019, Volume 3, Issue 4 - Spring 2019

Culture first, tools second

By Brent Timmerman

I’ve watched organizations and teams try their best to incorporate lean into their fabric and face many frustrations as they struggle to make lean an integral part of how they operate.

Sometimes I wonder if these organizations really know why they want to adopt lean. Is it to improve efficiency? Is it to save money? Is it because they want to ‘be like Toyota?’ Before an organization starts a lean journey, the leaders need to understand their rationale, and they need to recognize that the wrong rationale will cause problems.

We recognize the Toyota Production System as the origin of many of today’s lean practices; however, the last word, system, is crucial. That is how Toyota views lean — as a system for leading, managing, and operating every day. Toyota doesn’t see lean as a collection of tools, but as an integrated ecosystem they have developed through learning over many decades of experience.

This ecosystem has many attributes — some that are visible to outsiders, and many that are hard to see. Many people that visit and observe Toyota see the visible attributes and think that if they copy those pieces, they can become a lean organization like Toyota.

In many cases where companies are striving to adopt lean, they are trying to do so through the use of lean tools: Kaizen events, huddle boards, A3 reports, key performance indicators (KPIs), standard work, and so on. Yet, these companies often find they struggle to sustain the benefits of their improvements. They just can’t seem to obtain the full performance advantages they envisioned when they selected lean as the next thing to try on for size.

Do we really believe that pushing the tools will force the culture shift that is desired? We lose the ‘system’ aspect of the ecosystem when we adopt selective pieces and expect to receive the benefits of the whole.

Perhaps the word system confuses many people in North America, because we think that we can buy systems off the shelf, like software. But what if instead of the word system, we substitute the word culture?

In North America, we appreciate that changing culture is not easy. Culture takes years to develop and years to change. Culture speaks to the concept of a complete ecosystem, the necessity for everything to ‘fit together’ in a complementary way. Culture produces patterns of repeatable and predictable behaviour within a group of people. Culture shapes the responses of a group of people to a problem or a crisis. Culture guides the performance and efforts of a group of people when they work together. Maybe, just maybe, we need to instead focus on shifting the culture of our people, and have the lean tools available to support innovation as the culture shift happens.

But who shapes the culture of an organization? I believe that the staff of an organization don’t have nearly as much influence on the culture as the leadership. The leaders of a company demonstrate what behaviours are rewarded and celebrated, and the leaders show what behaviours are unacceptable. With this type of control, the leaders really shape the culture of the organization. As Simon Sinek says in his book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, “So goes the leadership, so goes the culture.”

When an organization is beginning a lean cultural transformation, I’ve found the first thing it needs is to strengthen trust between the leadership and the staff. The leaders need to get their people to believe that things are going to be different now, because it is very likely some leaders aren’t currently modeling all the behaviours required to support a lean management culture.

In the Department of Families, within the Government of Manitoba, we have taken a longer view of our transformation towards an innovative culture, and we have developed a training program intended to support the cultural shift within our leadership. This training program is entitled Leadership Principles for Effective Innovation, and takes place over a six-week period, with one half-day session per week. As the developer of this program, I currently facilitate each session, where we spend more than three hours talking as a group of leaders about topics that really matter to our desired culture shift, such as:

• Demonstrating respect for people at all times, while also actively correcting misconduct in the workplace;

• The importance of ‘modeling the way’ — of having our actions match our words and principles every day;

• Eliminating competition within and between our teams;

• The best ways to provide individualized and regular feedback to our people;

• Identifying our strategic direction, our ‘true north,’ and how we lead our people towards embracing KPIs as informative guides for innovation;

• Diagnosing the root cause of the problem when one of our people makes a mistake, and the importance of the leader recognizing their own possible role in performance problems; and

• The role of the leader as a coach, rather than the lead decision-maker or answer-giver.

But most importantly, we discuss the importance of reflection, of hansei, for leaders to truly be able to challenge their own biases, beliefs, and mistakes, with the goal of being productively self-critical. If we, as leaders, cannot reflect ourselves, we cannot lead our teams in hansei exercises after an innovation.

In the Department of Families, we do use the ‘typical’ tools of lean, but we prefer to introduce these tools after the leaders are in a better position to understand how they can behave to support the use of these tools in a truly innovative team culture.

Our focus is on culture first, and tools second. Our journey will take longer with this approach, but we believe that this is the difference between a fad diet and a true lifestyle change — the lifestyle change being the one that will stick around to become a part of who we truly are.

Brent Timmerman is the chief innovation officer with the Government of Manitoba’s Department of Families. A former private sector leader and COO of Manitoba Housing, Timmerman is championing the deployment of a lean transformation strategy within the department that focuses on leadership and employee engagement. He is an accredited professional engineer, and is certified as both a Project Management Professional (PMP) and Lean Black Belt.