Measuring up

Lessons from the Road: Does Your Lean Culture Measure Up?

Dec. 4, 2018
Clear expectations of behavior, and a plan for assessing them, will put you on the right path.

Organizations get more value from their investments in lean when lean is about behaviors, not just tools. That’s why it’s important to deliberately shape your lean culture. And if you’re going to shape it, then you also need a mechanism to measure whether you’ve it shaped effectively.

 In other words, if you’re going to improve through Plan - Do - Study – Adjust (or Plan – Do – Check – Act), then you need way to evaluate (Study, or Check) the effectiveness of your Plan.

These five essentials will help you establish a management system to measure and improve your culture.

1. Articulate your target culture. In order to evaluate the success of your culture, you need to effectively speak about the behaviors inherent in that culture. Too often, I see people intending to build a “lean culture,” but that is far too generic to mean anything.

Instead of focusing on goals, focus on behaviors. For example, waste elimination is a task, but a behavior is having intolerance for waste and being compelled to act. Problem-solving is a tool, but the valuable behavior is the pursuit of cause-and-effect.

It is difficult to hold someone accountable and measure their progress without clear expectations. Ensure that the behaviors defined are observable so that you can see someone do them to evaluate success.

2. Have a behavior change plan. Organizations have a resourcing plan, a customer plan, a financial plan and a production plan. Shouldn’t they also have a plan for how they will lead a culture change? We won’t go into depth here on how to build this plan, but you must create new experiences, in everything from how leaders spend their time to how they react to problems. Those experiences will build your culture. 

3. Observe behaviors. Leaders should be observing behaviors on a regular basis to determine whether their culture is functioning as expected. However, you need more than individual observations, which can be heavily biased. Clearly articulating your expected behaviors as described above provides alignment between different leaders making independent observations. Leaders must also come together to share and align their observations into a comprehensive conclusion, and discuss potential actions.

Also, a leader actively engaged in the task should not also be doing the observing on that task. To make the point, I’ll share an experience from my role as a soccer coach: Many soccer coaches love to play with the players they are coaching. It’s fun, and they can show off their skills. However, when they’re playing, they are not observing. They are missing stuff, no matter how important it is to them.

In your organization, it’s the same thing. If you’re participating in the process, meeting or decision, then it is hard to truly focus on observation.

4. Conduct an organizational assessment. Assessments are facilitated, organized efforts to assess an organization’s lean efforts against a predetermined rubric. They can provide many insights into lack of management support and misalignment of metrics. But they also have some limitations, inherently focusing more on skills and processes than culture. They can be very invasive, as you must look “under the hood” to gather enough data to draw credible and actionable conclusions. Once the assessment is concluded, create a clear action plan and communicate it with those who participated.

5. Use a survey assessment. Instead of limiting the observation points to just a few people, introducing potential biases, why not use everyone’s observations? Large sample sizes tend to even out observation bias and minimize the invasiveness of an assessment.

Because of the complexity and importance of such a survey, I recommend using an experienced third party expert to design and execute it—and to ensure anonymity while getting information that’s specific enough to use. The survey should get some sense of the respondent’s role in the company, because everyone tends to paint themselves in the most positive light. Frame questions less around introspection or opinion, and more around respondents’ own experience, i.e., “Do you see those that you work with clearly define their problem statement before proceeding to a solution?”

Properly designed and executed survey methodologies can provide period-over-period normalized data, giving you a better sense of whether you are making progress or not. They can also give targeted, subjective narrative data that can help you better understand why the culture is taking root or not.

Once you have an understanding of whether your culture is working, then you can adjust your plan to accomplish your goals.

About the Author

Jamie Flinchbaugh | Lean Advisor, Speaker and Author

Jamie Flinchbaugh is the founder of JFlinch, an advisory firm that focuses on helping build cultures, capabilities, leadership, and operating systems that consistently perform and scale. Leveraging his extensive experience of helping transform over 300 companies, Jamie is a valuable asset for any company seeking expert guidance with process improvements, lean strategies, and leadership coaching. His areas of expertise include continuous improvement, innovation and entrepreneurship, coaching and training, process transformation, business strategy, and organizational design.

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