Lessons from the Road: Build Culture Deliberately

Lessons from the Road: Build Culture Deliberately

These tactics can help you build the company culture you really want, not one that comes about by accident.

In my last installment, "Building Behaviors Bedrock of Lean Success," I argued that lean is not about installing tools but is about instilling a shared belief system that enables those tools to work effectively.

But how do you build a culture? Most cultures are not just the accumulation of "human nature." If that were true, then all corporate cultures would be the same. A company’s culture is the product of people’s shared experiences. The problem is, most of those experiences are not designed to create a deliberate culture. Instead, the result is an accidental culture.

You have it in your power to create new experiences to build that deliberate culture. To build such a strategy, we utilize a framework of Learn–Apply–Reflect, which connects the head, hand and heart towards a new set of behaviors. I will focus here on many of the free tactics that enable Learn–Apply–Reflect, although none of them are easy.

1. Understand the behavior. This is the Learn part of the process. Someone cannot sustainably enact a behavior that they don’t understand. The person must learn the behavior. Several tactics help.

Training is the most often chosen. We certainly believe that training works, as the Lean Learning Center built its own training center and hired instructional designers to accomplish that. But it is often chosen just because it is an easy choice. Just send people to training, and we can check the box on the lean journey.

Coaching is very effective to help people understand the change. Where training is efficient and controlled, coaching’s advantage is that it is tailored to the person being coached and their situation.

While these mechanisms require considerable resources, the purposeful use of language is also effective. For example, many companies talk about being customer-focused, but at Amazon.com, they talk of being customer-obsessed. Without any explanation, you immediately conjure a different image. At FEI, an employee-owned company in York, Pa., employees are referred to as shareholders, as a continuous reminder of a different set of expectations for employee behavior.

2. Give people new experiences that outweigh the old ones. The Apply step is essential for people to truly experience the behavior and mindset expected. To adopt a behavior, you need more than just an intellectual understanding, and you need more than one experience if it is to change a belief.

There are many mechanisms for giving people new experiences. All require purposeful actions. Improvement events such as kaizen workshops can provide experiences, but are most effective when learning objectives are clear and treated on par with performance objectives.

New roles, even part-time roles such as sitting on the "lean committee," can be experiences that shape people’s thinking. Being a good role model demonstrates to people the expected behavior, especially when it is applied towards them.


But perhaps the most effective, and cheapest, form of giving people new experiences is how we utilize recognition. While we often reward for performance, recognition should be reserved for behavior, particularly when public. In this way, it sends messages to others about what behaviors you value and want to see repeated. Are you saying "good job" and "thank you" for reactive firefighting, or for systematic lean improvement?

3. Reflection drives internalization. Just having an experience is not enough, because people can take away from the same experience very different lessons. People have to connect their experiences to their understanding, and in those moments, it is solidified into beliefs.

The simplest form of creating reflection is asking effective and open-ended questions that require someone to look internally and think before answering. It could be a question as simple as "What did you learn from that experience?" or something requiring more discussion such as "What would 'Ideal’ look like for this process?"

You don’t have to accept an accidental culture as permanent, but it won’t change without vision, purpose, and a well-executed plan of action.

Contributing Editor Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and a co-author of "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road."

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