Industryweek 2890 No1595

The First Rule of Lean Culture Change

Aug. 28, 2012
It doesn’t start until somebody does something differently. And it doesn’t stick until nearly everybody is doing something differently.

Quick: What aspect of lean implementation is given the most lip service and the least helpful information? I’m willing to bet most of you thought: “It’s culture change!” (Or some variation thereof.)

Let’s talk about 5S for a moment as an example. It’s the simplest, most straightforward of the lean tools: Organize the workplace and keep it organized. It’s even broken down into five steps! What could possibly be easier, right? 

Now, another question: How many of you, no matter how small your operations, can say you have 5S licked? The few of you raising your hands have been working at it a long time, I’m sure. I’m also certain that you’ll be the first to agree that you didn’t really make progress until you recognized the importance of changing your company’s culture as part of the implementation.

It’s easy to talk about the need for culture change but a lot harder to actually achieve it. Training and education will help, of course, but it’s not nearly enough. The first rule of culture change is: It doesn’t start until somebody does something differently. Culture change doesn’t stick until nearly everybody is doing something differently. So long as everyone is doing today just what they did yesterday, none of the lean tools will be effective over time.

Here’s a story that illustrates my point: I once made a call on a good company that asked for “5S refresher training for our supervisors.” 

“Why do you need 5S refresher training for supervisors?” I asked. 

Because they had a two-hour workshop on implementing 5S and they aren’t doing it. They need to be trained again.

“Did the training include specific instructions about how to implement 5S?  Did it include, say, whether or not they could paint the labels and home addresses on the floor and where to get the paint?” 

We don’t want them painting the floor.

“Has anyone followed up with the individual supervisors to find out why they aren’t implementing 5S?” 


“Has anyone developed goals, timeframes, and schedules for a 5S implementation?”


“Is there a process in place for tracking progress on 5S?”

Not really. We just know they aren’t doing it.

“If a supervisor did take the initiative to implement 5S, how would he or she be recognized or rewarded?”

We haven’t thought much about that.

Planning, Coaching and Education

I told them I’d be willing to help them with a broader program that included leadership planning, coaching, AND further education of managers and supervisors. They said, “Thanks, but we just want a two-hour refresher training session for our supervisors.”

In this case, neither supervisors nor management was doing anything differently. No culture change was possible.

So, what do I mean when I say, “Somebody has to do something differently”? Let’s go back to that two-hour training course: I’d guess that it offered very little as to exactly what the supervisors needed to do the next day, the day after and the day after that. I also suspect that senior leadership hadn’t done any planning as to what it would do the next day, the day after, and the day after that to support and reinforce what the supervisors were doing. 

Culture change doesn’t come when folks inside the organization know something new and different, or when they intend something different, or they think differently, or that they have a different managing philosophy. It only starts when folks inside the organization do something different, and it is sustained when they continue to do something different over time.

Let’s imagine a different two-hour class for our supervisors and managers. In our class, the first 30 minutes is spent on what 5S is all about. The rest of the workshop is devoted to having the supervisors develop a schedule for their areas as to when they will gather their teams together to conduct 5S activities. It’s also used to make them familiar with a self-audit process that they will be expected to carry out. For their part, managers plan to reinforce the schedules, to accompany the teams on their self-reviews and to conduct daily walk-arounds. This isn’t the only way to move 5S forward, but it focuses on action, on doing something differently.

Some will read this and accuse me of oversimplifying things. “There is more to all this than simply adding a few things to one’s daily schedule,” they might say. Even if one does add some new things to one’s daily schedule, there’s the question of whether those new things will be done effectively. I won’t argue with those points, but until something different is added to one’s daily schedule, culture change won’t start. Until everyone has something different on his or her schedule…and keeps it there…culture change won’t be sustained.

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. Bohan has a bachelor of arts in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master of science in organizational development from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He has published articles in National Productivity Review, Quality Progress and ASTD's Training and Development Journal. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance. Bohan can be reached at[email protected].

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