Knowing your human talent to create a lean culture

Mario Cywinski   

Business Operations Industry Manufacturing Business creativity development factory improvement industry Kaizen manufacturing process quality

It has been said that the factory of the future will only require two occupants; one human and one dog.

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The primary purpose of the human is to feed the dog, and the purpose of the dog is to bite the human if it touches any of the equipment. But a culture will still reside in any factory of the future, no matter how sophisticated or automated.

Creating a lean culture seems very difficult, but it does not have to be that way.

“How do we create a lean culture?”, that’s a question we often hear from managers and associates. For years this has been a prime concern of many lean practitioners. However, focusing on lean culture as “the answer” can impede people’s ability to gain a deeper understanding of the lean management system and how to improve. In other words, searching for the secret to creating lean culture can become a harmful distraction.

Consider a rock-and-roll band. To excel at making good music, each band member must possess several important characteristics:
-Have a burning interest
-Be highly motivated
-Deeply committed
-Hungry to learn various technical and non-technical aspects
-Practice relentlessly to gain mastery
-Develop discipline to sustain daily practice
-Not forgetting what they learned in practice when it is time to perform


They must set realistic but achievable goals, and also be sensible—e.g. quickly stop doing things that do not help them meet their goals. While a band might not become world-famous, band members will likely have a lot of fun along the way.
They will also encounter some frustrations, as success usually does not come easily. But bands that do these seven things make it look easy to those of us who have no idea of time and effort that they put in to making good music. Is this the culture of rock bands?

You can easily replace the word “band” with the word “company”, and see that the same things would apply if a company wants to become successful in their efforts to practice lean management.

Organizations that practice lean management well do not possess a mystical culture. Instead, it is the people, the “band members”, that do these seven things.

However, it is common to find managers:
-With an interest in Lean, but not a burning interest
-Motivated, but not highly motivated
-Committed, but not deeply committed
-Interested in learning, but not hungry to learn
-Who practice periodically, but not relentlessly
-Are disciplined when they are in the mood, but not every day
-And forget what they learned in practice when business conditions change.

Rather than searching for a secret formula, it is much better to “just do it,”; Kaizen, the process for continuous improvement that is practiced daily by people at all levels in an organization.

Participating in Kaizen is the key activity that leads to the formation of new beliefs, which are the foundation for creating a lean culture. It is also very important to stop doing things that do not help an organization achieve its goal of creating a lean culture, such as continued use of policies and metrics that contradict lean principles and practices.

What we see in the companies that practice lean well is a clear and consistent pattern among managers and associates who have a strong desire to succeed, and also skillfully practice both lean principles: continuous improvement and respect
for people.

What we see in the companies that practice lean well is a clear and consistent pattern among managers and associates who have a strong desire to succeed, and also skillfully practice both lean principles: continuous improvement and respect for people.

The many benefits of lean management, practiced correctly, are undeniable. However, until people—especially senior managers—possess the seven characteristics listed above, it will be difficult to create a lean culture, and the best examples of lean management practices will be few.

The good news for those that are succeeding is a much brighter future, built on a customer-first foundation.

But there is also good news for companies that are not having much success: they can become more successful—though it may require a board of directors to intervene and ensure most of the top managers possess the seven characteristics that we have described.

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The question is, how will they know?
It turns out that in most cases, they don’t, and so unfortunately something bad happens. Often the people who get promoted within the first year or two after starting the lean transformation are the ones with the poorest understanding of lean principles and practices —though they are usually able to talk a good line. They tend to be people who can reliably “make the month” the old-fashioned way, and thus help the CEO and CFO stay out of trouble.

Top managers often say that lean is critical to the company’s future. If lean really is critical, then the leading candidates for advancement should be the people who understand lean best. And it will be among those who regularly participate in Kaizen. Promoting the right people will motivate others who do not understand lean to learn and improve.

Implementing lean means top managers and directors must make a clear shift away from tired political-based promotion practices that favour the “good old boys and girls,” to a truer meritocracy that advances those who understand and implement lean very well. Indeed, this is exactly what happens in companies whose managers possess a very deep understanding of Lean.
They recognize that saying one thing: we must all eliminate waste, and doing another, promoting people who don’t know how to eliminate waste, is variation; a wasteful inconsistent behavior that adds cost (e.g. causes people to disengage or actively subvert lean efforts), and does not add value. This is one of many very important aspects of the lean transformation that are not well understood by most senior managers.

In summary, successful efforts to create a lean culture are preceded by the seven characteristics we identified. Further, it is essential to improve the criteria for advancement and also ensure that promotion processes are consistent with lean principles and practices. Doing so would clearly support efforts to create a lean culture.
Richard Kunst is an author, speaker and seasoned lean practitioner based in Toronto, who leads a holistic practice to coach, mentor and provide management solutions to help companies implement or accelerate their excellence journeys. You can reach him at


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