Continuous Improvement -- Sustainable Improvement Requires A Culture Change

March 8, 2007
Manufacturing leaders need to overcome the attitude of "that's just how we do things around here."

If you are like most manufacturers in North America who have begun a lean transformation, you know how difficult it is to sustain the improvements your teams have implemented. Why is it that these efforts, with measurable operational improvements, are so difficult to hold on to? As Robert W. "Doc" Hall, one of the founders of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME), says, "It's the culture of your organization that defines 'how we do things around here.'" As a result, you need to change your culture if you want to sustain the changes to your processes that your continuous teams have developed and the measurable benefits they worked so hard to implement.

In every organization, there exist three distinct groups of people. The "change agents" are those who want to change and do everything differently (although not always better), and the "resistors" don't want to make any changes, regardless of the reason. These two groups are at the opposite ends of the distribution curve, but they are small in number, while the vast majority of your people are the "passive majority" in the middle who are pulled from both sides. It is only by changing "how we do things around here" that your organization will be able to redefine your culture and sustain the improvements your teams have made, which means this passive majority has to be won over to the side of change.

The difficult thing about culture is that it's not something you can look at, touch or manage. According to Sherrie Ford of Change Partners in Athens, Ga., culture is the pattern of behaviors and values that employees create for themselves.

It's the legends, rituals and stories that people tell about working in your organization and it's beyond the direct control of management. So, if culture is what determines whether your improvement efforts will be sustainable and it's not something you can manage, what's a manager to do? It's here that leaders prevail and managers fail.

We've all heard the caveat about leaders "walk-ing the talk," but it's much more than that. For leaders to really change "how we do things around here," they have to behave differently than managers and visibly support the people leading the change efforts. If people in your organization really see leaders aligned with and actively supporting their change agents, the passive majority will align more readily with the change agents instead of the resistors, and that's what you need to change the culture of your organization.

According to Tedd Simmons and Larry Fast of General Cable, who spoke at a recent AME Champions Club meeting, people support what they help to create so leaders involve people in decisions that affect them prior to decisions being made, and then they respond to the feedback from these folks. Bob Koski, chairman emeritus of Sun Hydraulics in Sarasota, Fla., says it's up to the leaders to create "psychological safety" for people to enable them to embrace risk and try new ways of doing things without being blamed or punished if things don't work out as expected.

Changes in "how we do things around here" should be viewed like a science experiment. If it works as expected, great and let's celebrate, but if it doesn't work, don't try looking for someone to blame. Instead, ask what we learned so it doesn't happen again, and go on with more changes and experiments to make things better.

This whole process takes a lot of patience since it's changing people's behavior, which takes leadership and perseverance. You are trying to change how people think, act and interact with one another in order to achieve cultural change that will allow your organization to sustain process improvements, and accomplishing this isn't easy.

Ralph Keller is president of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, an organization dedicated to cultivating understanding, analysis and exchange of productivity methods and their successful application in the pursuit of excellence. He has been an operations practitioner for the past 35 years.

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