How positive energy helps to create a lasting lean culture

Dr Jaap van Ede is a Dutch journalist specialised in lean and continuous improvement. He’s the owner and editor in chief of  two independent websites on business improvement, (in Dutch) and (in English). This is his first blog for LMJ. Dr van Ede will write about lean success and failure in the Netherlands and Belgium.

One of the most popular Dutch athletes at the London Olympics was sprinter Churandy Martina. Not because he won. He didn’t, he was 6th at the 100 metres, and 5th at the 200 metres. His results, in two of the most popular Olympic disciplines, surely deserve praise. And note that Mr Martina only weighs about 74 kilos and is 1,7-metre tall, whereas winner Usain Bolt weighs more than 90 kilos and is nearly 2-metre tall.

After the 100 metres competition, Mr Martina was asked if he was disappointed that he didn’t win an Olympic medal. With a big smile on his face, he answered: “No, no, I am happy!” His enthusiasm and joy made him very popular here in the Netherlands. Why? Because his interview made people feel good about themselves.

What can we learn from this? That enthusiasm gives people energy and that this is contagious. This might be exactly the kind of energy you need to make people enthusiastic about lean.

It is well-known that to be successful with lean you need not only tools like value stream mapping, 5S and kanban, but also a cultural change. You need everybody’s help every day, to improve step by step, by applying standard problem solving methods. Most lean failures can be related to problems with the “people part” of lean. There are often a few quick successes at the beginning, but people in the company do not really think and act lean. As a result, continuous improvement doesn’t materialise.

To change the culture in a company is not easy. It resembles a super tanker which can only change its course very slowly.

“You cannot trade your company culture in, like you buy a new car,” states Jon Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen and Caroline Kronley in their article Cultural Change that Sticks (appeared in the Harvard Business Review in July). Do not fight against the existing merits, they say, it is far better to work with and within the existing culture. In essence, their advice is to focus on what goes well, so that the people become proud again of their work. This immediately reminded me of Churandy Martina. First, positive energy should be generated. After this, it becomes possible to steer the company culture in the new desired direction, by encouraging critical behavioural changes.

There is a method that converts negative energy into positive energy, which is called  Appreciative Inquiry. A Leaf confectionary factory applied this methodology to accomplish a lean transformation in the astonishingly short period of one year.

Before the transformation, the situation in the factory was worrying. Delivery was regularly late, there were quality problems, and there was a lot of waste. And the managers blamed the employees: they were said to be incompetent. However, a new management team proved the opposite. They discovered that something else was going on: the ability of production workers to solve problems was not being developed. To boost the employees’ self-respect, the new managers started to ask questions like, “What are you proud of?” and “What makes you happy?”

This not only generated a lot of positive energy, but it also gave people the courage to think about lean breakthroughs. During a so-called Dream Day, as shown on the picture, groups of operators presented their idea of the ideal factory in 2015.

You can read the full story about Leaf in Dutch on ( and in English on (