Klaus Lyck Petersen, group process manager at Solar Group presents a history of the organisation’s lean practices and the lessons they’ve learnt along the way.

As we are progressing down the lean path in our organisations, in an ever lasting search for waste to reduce, processes to optimise and develop the management behaviour towards lean thinking, we often use the term “lean culture”.

But what is the lean culture? Has anyone seen it, touched it or even been able to kick it? Throughout the years, a lot of material is written about the topic “how to build a lean culture?” and “what is the definition of a lean culture?”. Looking at the current material there are some agreement but also big deviations on what it is.

Some say a lean culture is defined by the elements of having a vision, the kaizen approach, go and see true facts and team work. While others claim it is about leadership and respect, encountering alignment, continuous improvement and costumer focus.

I believe that all these versions are probably good and will help the company which adapts them but I think we need to go a little backwards and have a look at the culture issue. First of all, we should have in mind that the term “culture” is used in many different situations like talking about a football culture or traffic culture. So overall, the term is very broad. Looking from my point of view, I would define culture as habits, meaning a description of things that we, in a group, do. It is agreed upon and aligned. Transferring this to the lean culture, the elements would be:

  1. A clear direction for the company –a map on where we are going and how to get there
  2. A continuous improvement approach which is agreed and lived by everyone
  3. Visible and proactive leaders who develop people

Some of the very skilled readers would probably disagree on this definition but at the end of the day this is how we define it which is based on a seven-year lean journey that we have been on with changing strategies and new CEOs.

What we have learned on this journey is that you need to pay respect to the existing culture in a company when trying to change it into the lean culture, meaning that if you wipe the board clean and try to make the old company culture disappear, you will get a lot of resistance.

We tried to combine the best of the old culture, like strong costumer focus and great entrepreneurship, with a huge will to execute (maybe sometimes too fast). Of course we also took out some of the not so good elements of the company culture, like hiding problems or blaming each other when errors occurred. In our approach, we communicated very openly about these changes to come and, of course, we got some serious reactions in certain areas of the company. But thanks to an aligned management team we turned this into something positive from the employee’s point of view.

Having that in mind, we also learned that it can be very dangerous to talk too much about lean culture in the beginning of a transformation. It is very important to focus on the practical things that are going to happen during a transformation and where we can kick it and touch it like systematic problem solving, developing competences and communication about the direction of the company basically focusing on people, processes and systems.

So my recommendation in this matter is not to make the implementation of a lean culture a goal –you cannot measure it. But rather see this as a consequence of a systematic approach with planned actions, concepts and a good architectural drawing behind it with clear measurable goals that you can follow up on.

Solar team at work.

Another thing we learned or realised during the seven-year journey is that your understanding or knowledge of what it takes to get a lean culture, changes as you learn and get more mature in the organisation. So what we saw as a lean culture in the beginning is not the same as how we see it today. I think that as companies progress down the lean transformation path, the bar of what a lean culture constitute, is raising. This could lead to the conclusion that you will never reach your lean culture because it changes as you develop which is the same mindset like the lean journey –pursuit of perfection.

There is no doubt that the element of creating a lean culture is important –we all know the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and this certainly applies here. We can have the best (lean) strategy for our company but if the culture is not aligned on this, it will never work. Culture wins and strategy loses.

 

For companies starting the journey or got stuck on the way, here are some recommendations:

  • Find a good combination between chasing a new lean culture (with the best from the existing one) but still have clear and measurable KPIs in focus regarding the lean transformation and the results created.
  • Focus on people, systems and processes. A very simple model to have in mind because it covers the areas in which we want to improve/change.
  • Change the behaviour of managers/their role. Train them, lead them –go see.
  • Have clear and simple methods (identify, prioritise, execute and follow up) which are understood and adapted by the business.
  • Be in control of the risks surrounding the transformation
    • Not creating results that are measurable.
    • To soft transformation –not visible on the bottom line.
    • The transformation becomes too academic –people on the level of .execution do not adapt to the transformation –made too complicated?
    • Communicate, communicate, communicate.

It is without any doubt a very challenging task to implement a lean culture in an organisation and it requires a great deal of work, devotion, humbleness and courage to do it. But when you and your organisation are committed to go there, you will aim for it. However, do not get disappointed if you never really get there because you are chasing the treasure at the end of the rainbow.