The Missing Link in Lean: The management system - Part I of II

Most prescriptions for Lean production are missing a critical ingredient: a Lean management system to sustain it. Lean management practices are like many other aspects of lean: easy to grasp, but difficult to execute consistently. This book spells out the distinction between an organization’s culture and its management system; provides a framework to see the differences between Lean and batch cultures; and details the practices, tools, and thinking for establishing Lean management. A Lean management system sustains and extends the gains from implementing Lean production.

Lean cultures grow from robust Lean management systems, and this chapter shows how.

Developing a Lean Culture

What is culture? Is it real? Should it be among the targets in your Lean implementation? As a working definition, consider culture in a work organization to be the sum of peoples’ habits related to how they get their work done. You will see several examples in the next few pages. Given that, culture must be “real,” right? Well, yes and no.

In scientific language, culture is a hypothetical construct. That is, culture is a label or idea—a concept we make up to organize and get a handle on what we have seen or experienced. It has been said that something is real if it has observable effects. Culture certainly fits the bill there. People talk about their company’s culture all the time as a reason why they can or cannot do something. Keynote speakers refer to an organization’s culture as enabling or inhibiting change or resistance. Annual reports proudly refer to company culture as an invaluable asset, and so on. 

Should a company target its culture in its efforts to transform its production processes and all the positions—high and low—associated with it? It is tempting to answer: Yes! But, that would be a mistake.

Culture is no more likely a target than the air we breathe. It is not something to target for change. Culture is an idea arising from experience. That is, our idea of the culture of a place or organization is a result of what we experience there. In this way, a company’s culture is a result of its management system. The premise of this book is that culture is critical, and to change it, you have to change your management system.

So, focus on your management system, on targets you can see, such as leaders’ behavior, specific expectations, tools, and routine practices. Lean production systems make this easier, because they emphasize explicitly defined processes and use visual controls.


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