Lean manufacturing is much more than a collection of tools. Operating a truly Lean facility requires a Lean mindset, which is only achieved by developing a Lean culture.

In this blog, we address why culture matters. We explore how you can recognize a Lean culture and the benefits of developing one. In the end, we'll suggest how you can set that process in motion.

Why Become Lean?

Satisfied customers are more likely to return and may be willing to pay a premium for products from suppliers that better meet their needs. Lean helps manufacturers focus on what customers expect by identifying what products, features, processes, and activities are of value to customers and seeks to remove or minimize everything else. At its core, Lean is about driving continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement revolves around identifying and eliminating waste in all of its forms. Focusing on continuous improvement exposes problems that employees can work on and resolve together.

The Role of Culture in Lean Manufacturing

Culture is the personality of an organization. It's a set of beliefs, values, and behaviors  everyone adopts in the enterprise. These values often take the form of unwritten rules, practices, and procedures. Culture is, in short, how and why we do things here.

A manufacturer implementing Lean thinking from a tools-based approach is rarely successful. Employees may view it as a "flavor-of-the-month" exercise that will disappear when management moves on to the next fad. The challenge is that to endure, Lean must be part of the company's culture.

What is a Lean Culture?

Every manufacturing business operates with unique circumstances, so culture varies from one company to another. There are, however, some common features that drive Lean adoption:

  • Continuous improvement is the overriding principle
  • Some businesses focus on respect for employees
  • The talents, experience, skills, and knowledge of every employee are utilized in pursuit of continuous improvement
  • The overarching goal is to find and drive out waste in all of its forms
  • Improvement never ends but is simply part of how things are done

Dimensions of a Lean Culture

Having characterized a Lean culture, let's turn to how you would recognize one. A Lean culture has four pillars:

  1. Cultural enablers
  2. Continuous improvement
  3. Enterprise alignment
  4. Customer-focused purpose

Here's a closer look.

Cultural Enablers

These are people who promote and exemplify Lean behaviors. They may be leaders by virtue of their formal positions or informally due to the respect they've built up over time.

In a Lean culture, these people are the glue creating strong connections between people and teams. They might also be considered the lubricant that smooths interactions, helping bring about alignment toward common objectives. When an organization focuses on cultural enablers, other Lean activities are successful.

Continuous Improvement

In a Lean enterprise, people always look for ways to do things better. They employ a scientific approach to measurement and inquiry, asking "why" and formulating and testing hypotheses.

A common language is key for continuous improvement so people from different functions can come together to discuss and resolve problems. These efforts help move the organization toward achieving the strategic vision.

Enterprise Alignment

Any group with a shared objective must march in the same direction. This is as true of people working in manufacturing as it is of sports teams or orchestras. People need to know where the group is going, and every person needs to know how they can help.

Customer-Focused Purpose

Clarity about organizational purpose increases employee engagement and productivity. In a Lean enterprise, that purpose relates to creating value for the customer. Understanding who you serve (your customer) and why, can have an enormous impact on business performance.

Benefits of a Lean Culture

A Lean culture ensures that Lean practices and tools will stick. They will be part of how everyone works, which means they'll last rather than being yet another management initiative. However, to see why it's worth building a Lean culture, let's examine the benefits.

Lean results in:

  • Higher employee engagement and satisfaction
  • Improved employee retention
  • Year-on-year reductions in waste
  • Greater collaboration
  • Product quality improvements
  • Visual management of manufacturing
  • Higher efficiency
  • A safer work environment

These, in turn, lead to:

  • Increased revenue (driven by higher customer satisfaction and increased capacity)
  • Greater sustainability (through better resource usage)
  • Better competitive life cycle analysis
  • Increased profits
  • Long-term growth

How Do You Build a Lean Culture?

Here are eight steps to building a Lean culture.

1. Keep the Customer in Mind

Consider customers' needs during all aspects of business operations, and encourage employees to do the same. Strive to provide customers with a great end-user experience by:

  • Gathering regular feedback from focus groups, surveys, product tests, and online reviews
  • Implementing customer service metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs), such as customer service response time, and identifying the content that website visitors engage with most frequently

2. Get Leadership Buy-In and Implement From the Top Down

Cultural change begins with enablers modeling the behaviors and values expected and getting everyone to follow the new processes. This shows their commitment and clarifies the expectations. They must also hold accountable those who knowingly slip back into the old ways of working.

This sometimes requires making difficult decisions that run counter to the old “output-at-all-costs” attitudes. If these steps aren't followed, the new culture is unlikely to take hold in the rest of the company.

3. Foster a Learning Environment

Continuous improvement depends upon employees learning and choosing to optimize their performance. In a Lean culture, company leaders help every employee continually learn new skills and advance their careers. This commitment to development usually encourages employees to be proactive about continually improving organizational processes. Strategies for fostering an environment of continuous learning and improvement include:

  • Developing internal training opportunities, such as courses or job shadowing
  • Sending employees to industry conventions, workshops, or conferences
  • Providing ways for employees to make suggestions about their department or the company
  • Soliciting anonymous feedback about aspects of the organization

4. Create a Vision

A vision statement shows how your company sees itself in the future, complementing the mission and values you've developed. Communicating these throughout the business:

  • Gives employees information about why and how to optimize company processes or protocols
  • Helps employees understand the value of their specific contribution, which builds feelings of appreciation

5. Train Employees

Training in Lean is essential for employees to understand how they are expected to work in the new culture. This cannot be a one-off activity though. Ensure they are taught specific Lean philosophies and Lean tools and supplement this with periodic training to help them stay current with the latest developments in Lean methodology. Leaders can go a long way to reinforce training by talking to employees about the training they have attended and how it has enabled them to be better practitioners of Lean.

6. Develop Behavior Expectations

Employees must understand how to behave in the new culture. These expectations should be documented to ensure consistent application and be linked to HR policies and procedures. Consider that expectations need not be identical across the organization — some teams or departments may have requirements or needs that differ from others.

7. Create Inter-Departmental Teams

Lean requires various teams and departments to work together. One idea is to have employees work on interdepartmental, or cross-functional, teams that evaluate processes taking place across multiple functions. Bringing people with differing perspectives together almost always provides new insights into improvement opportunities.

8. Monitor Performance Metrics and KPIs

Continuous improvement requires measurement, which is as true of culture change as of other initiatives. Identify and implement metrics for both teams and individuals that will show how your adoption of a Lean culture is progressing.

Appropriate metrics or KPIs depend on your industry and the processes you operate, but it's also important to look at where you most want to see change. This could be one or more of the following areas:

  • Quality assurance
  • Customer service
  • Delivery performance
  • Safety performance

How Does CMTC Help SMMs Create a Lean Culture?

Lean is never easy, but it's especially challenging for small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) who have fewer resources. CMTC offers an extensive range of consulting services to help. Our Lean experts can advise on how to adopt Lean manufacturing principles and can help you build a Lean culture.

Support from CMTC can set you up for success on your Lean journey. You'll reduce waste, improve focus on the customer, and, most importantly, build an organizational culture that values and strives for continuous improvement. Contact us today to learn more!

About the Author

Gregg Profozich

Gregg Profozich is a manufacturing, operations and technology executive who believes that manufacturing is the key creator of wealth in the economy and that a strong manufacturing sector is critical to our nation’s prosperity and security now, and for future generations. Across his 20-year plus career in manufacturing, operations and technology consulting, Mr. Profozich helped manufacturing companies from the Fortune 500 to the small, independents significantly improve their productivity and competitiveness.

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