Successful transformation to a continuous process improvement culture is arduous. It requires an enterprise approach that engages the entire organization and challenges its norms. It requires knowledge of new tools and methodologies, and a level of internal discipline beyond that in which most organizations operate.

Most organizations are addicted to quick fixes and immediate results. If they don’t get the immediate gratification they seek, they may abandon the team, partner or program in search of the next best thing. This need for immediate results has caused the demise, or limited success, of many improvement programs.

Why does Lean work in some organizations and not in others? In short, the difference between success and failure is in cultural acceptance and the ability of an organization to accept change, not just Lean change, but change in general.

Starting Small

While Lean may seem like a radical shift, the dynamics of successful Lean transformation rely on continuous small pushes on the flywheel of change, creating momentum and a cultural movement. In his book Good to Great (Collins Business, 2001), Jim Collins talks about the flywheel effect. Great organizations don’t become that way overnight, he writes; they become that way because continuous small pushes create a breakthrough velocity that sustains growth. At the point where the momentum of change reaches breakthrough velocity, the organization moves forward along its Lean journey.

To begin, however, an organization often needs to employ organizational change and development tools to overcome barriers and resistance to change.

Learning from Successful Companies

Wiremold, one company profiled by James Womack and Daniel Jones in the book Lean Thinking (Free Press, second ed., 2003), was successful at implementing Lean because its organization was one in which Lean could thrive. It was an innovative and adaptive organization that continuously challenged its people to improve. Employees were open to change and created an environment in which not only change was accepted, but also resistance to change was considered a performance problem. The hiring process looked at applicants’ technical qualifications and at their fit with the team – whether the job was in management, the shop floor or the cleaning staff.

The company trained its leaders in organizational development principles, including effective communication, teaming, values and diversity. Major decisions were made as a consensus with all of the organization’s departments represented. At times it seemed like it took an inordinate amount of time to form consensus, but once achieved there was no undercutting the decisions.

Wiremold and companies like it show that sustainable results can be achieved when the culture of an organization accepts the technical changes being implemented. Success has little to do with an organization’s technical understanding of Lean tools. It has everything to do with an organization’s culture and its ability to recognize that without addressing the culture, Lean technical solutions will not work.

Toyota teaches a cultural change model that considers an organization’s willingness to accept change. Toyota estimates 2 percent to 4 percent of every organization is made up of innovative, adaptive people who are willing to drive and accept change. Another 2 percent to 4 percent are anchor-draggers who actively resist and impede change. The remainder of the organization is made up of fence-sitters waiting to see who will prevail.

While traditional managers spend their efforts focusing on the anchor-draggers, Toyota suggests that managers should be spending time with the early adapters, providing cover and support. The organization’s focus is on positive reinforcement, which promotes a forward shift in the fence-sitters.

The same dynamic seems to operate in industries: 2 percent to 4 percent of organizations in an industry are early adaptive and innovative. These organizations are able to accept Lean as transformational. In adaptive, innovative organizations there is very little push-back from leadership or the workforce when it comes to implementing and sustaining improvements generated by Lean activities. These innovative and adaptive organizations are the ones whose successes are documented in the Lean books.

Making the Adjustment

One approach to Lean transformation is to begin by assessing an organization’s willingness to change, often with the help of a consultant. From the assessment, an implementation plan should be developed that addresses both the technical elements and organizational development aspects of a Lean implementation.

On the front end is laying a foundation of knowledge, building consensus and promoting data-based decisions. New team structures are created that promote communication and engagement. Lean experts are developed by teaching people how-to methods and the theories behind them, and by working hands-on with them throughout the process.

Training and practical application of organizational change and development tools help to improve team members’ soft skills. For example, personality profile tools such as the DISC [dominance, influence, steadiness, conscientiousness] assessment and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can be used for training in diversification, situational leadership and effective communications. The Johari window, a tool used to help people understand their communication and relationship styles, and other tools and concepts can break down barriers to change and help convert the organizational culture to one in which Lean can not only survive, but also thrive.

Meanwhile, the company’s leaders must develop the vision by using long-range planning tools. In strategy deployment sessions, leaders should identify 3- to 5-year breakthrough objectives and annual improvement priorities.

Leading the Way

In successful transformations, leaders take the lead. The creation of a continuous process improvement culture cannot be delegated or hired into an organization. Leadership must embrace the tools and methods and lead the change. They are responsible for creating and communicating the organization’s vision for the future, for identifying the major barriers that need to be overcome in order to achieve the organization’s vision, and for aligning the efforts of the entire enterprise toward overcoming those barriers. They are also responsible for creating the new systems and structures required to achieve the vision, and for governing the process to ensure both compliance (internal discipline and standard work) and progress (establishing proper metrics and milestones) are achieved.

Building Momentum for Change

Change acceleration can be slow in the beginning stages. As the organization’s culture responds to training and achieving measurable results, change builds momentum and its velocity increases. The idea is to train and supplement the organization until the pressure of the old system is overcome by pressure from the new one.

With skillful use of organizational development methods, cultural development can provide the foundation for Lean transformation and sustainability. Organizations using this process have found that as the culture changes, the rate of Lean implementation accelerates.

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