Guest Commentary: The Unseen Element

This post was authored by Susan A. Nally, Lean Specialist for Roll Forming Corporation. Susan has a diverse background in technical writing, public speaking, and implementing Lean Strategies for manufacturing and health care industries. Susan has worked for Roll Forming Corporation since 1996 in the role of Continuous Improvement Lean Systems Specialist.  Her consulting experience in Lean spans across a diverse blend of manufacturing and health care environments, having consulted for small and large organizations across the maturation stages of Lean culture stability.  She is the owner and president of LeanForward Inc., which opened in 2003.    

She holds a B.A. from the University of Louisville (1988), a Masters in Clinical Counseling from Kent School (1991), a UK Lean Certification (1997), and Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt Certification. She has been happily married for more than twenty years and has been blessed with two children. Susan enjoys almost any activity in the great outdoors. She describes her personal priorities as the “Four Fs”:  faith, family, friends, and funding fun.


Culture, as Henry Ford described it, is the way people are when no one is watching. That can mean the ways they behave, think, talk, work, act, and everything in between. As we’ve said before, culture is all-encompassing and hugely important—but it’s also unseen. It’s invisible and unwatchable, except in its results. How do you influence something that you can’t see, that takes so little form, and yet that is so important?

It starts with a good, hard look in the mirror. Corporate culture is, first and foremost, a reflection of the leaders’ philosophy, and it’s made in the image of the leaders’ words and deeds. You have an important role to play in this at all times.

Let’s go ahead and give you an example of a healthy corporate culture: Toyota. Toyota has sustained and advanced their corporate value of waste elimination through a policy of “do things right the first time.” Toyota is a good working example of Edward Deming’s quality chain reaction, which holds that, when quality is the driving force of the culture, it will increase efficiency and productivity, decrease costs, and in turn allow the company to lower prices, attract a higher market share, increase profits, and improve customer satisfaction. Notice that customer satisfaction is directly linked to the actions of their employees—even their employees on the assembly line thousands of miles away!

You’ll notice, too, that the key to this equation isn’t scientific or economic mumbo-jumbo; it’s people. People are the most important element of a company for achieving customer satisfaction, period. (It’s because people are the most important element of a successful company that we discuss culture at great length.)

Talented, well-trained people bring stability to your company. Stability yields trust and accountability, two of the most important traits for a corporate culture, and especially for a culture about to enter an aggressive continuous improvement program.

As you’re concerned, trust and accountability aren’t just knowing that your employees will “do their jobs” without supervision. It’s empowering your employees to do better by themselves, to shoot for better targets of quality. And trust is two-way: just as you must trust your employees, they must trust you and want to listen. That’s why one of your roles is to identify defects blamelessly and then choose technical tools of process improvement to streamline work and eliminate waste. Everyone wins where there’s mutual trust and accountability.

Healthy, effective work cultures also display respect for people and a sort of intential human development. If we were in grade school, we’d just call these “respect” and “maturity.” And fittingly, because this is just the grown-up, corporate version of the same basic idea: when people respect one another, get along well, and feel free to do whatever they do best, the office, just as the schoolyard, is a prosperous place.

Human development is what separates Lean successes from Lean failures. At Toyota, where the level of human development is quite high, employees (a) are in charge of their own jobs, (b) design their own standardized work, and (c) are authorized to make changes to improve the work. For any sort of Lean culture to work, you have to invest in quality through your people, who are the force that build your company and the group ultimately responsible for continuous improvement.

Without their hearts engaged, the results will be marginal at best.

Leaders Listen with Purpose
I told you before to look in the mirror. I’ll tell you now to look there again, because now we discuss leadership—you—and what the role of a leader is in this task.

Put shortly, it’s the role of a leader to create a consistency of purpose towards improving human talent and trust and reducing waste everywhere in the organization. In other words, you have to know that you want people to “tune into” their work as closely as possible, and you have to welcome them to do so through your example.

First and most important: you will not accomplish anything unless you listen with purpose to the people who perform value-adding work (which, in theory, should be everyone). In Toyota’s example, the “customer” was a great distance from the “supplier,” but for right now, you can’t think of the customer as a faraway buyer and the supplier as your company’s building. Think of the company itself as a collection of customers and suppliers; everyone in the office has products and services, and among them there is plenty of exchange every day. The same way you want your eventual, real customer to be happy and engaged, you want that from your employees, all of whom are consumers of one another’s work (and you’re a part of that exchange, remember).

Second: you have to find ways to show, not tell. No one likes an empty speech. Don’t give empty speeches. Even if the speech is not empty, don’t give it except on rare occasion. You have to find ways to show the change through action, through something that people can witness and remember. If you tell workers that their job is to solve problems, they will forget, or they won’t take it to heart; tomorrow they will resume work as before. But if you can empower them, if you can show them that their job is to solve problems and that you trust them to do it, and that you will help guide them without penalty to them, they will solve problems.

No two companies are the same, of course, but one thing that seems sure is that you won’t be doing this from the isolation of your executive office. You’ll have to “lead from the shop floor,” or whatever your company’s equivalent may be. And don’t just walk around and ask people how they’re doing; engage them about their work. Without scaring them (which, as the boss, you can do unintentionally), ask them what they need and challenge them. Once you’ve spent time on the shop floor, the possibilities for improvement will seem much more evident to you. Then, once you’ve contemplated those possibilities, you’ll have a much better idea of how to design structures that will make workers more accountable and more successful, will help them support and communicate with one another, and will engage them with solving problems and reducing waste.

Weary of Lean Tools?
Leaders are weary of hearing about Lean tool boxes, Kanban, standardized work and 5S strategies. These tools in and of themselves do not solve problems. All the do, of themselves, is increase work load.

This can make problems and problem sources visible, but just adding the steps for one of those programs won’t help your company. If you write down goals and add steps, but then permit deviation from those goals and steps, the very tool you bought to improve your company will only showcase the company’s weak management or unbelieving leaders. If I may be so blunt, such a leader is not a leader at all; he or she is just a person in charge who is adding pointless steps and diluting the value of the company’s work.

One of the leader’s jobs is to protect the best interests of the followers—both employees and customers. Remember our example from Toyota; happy customers result from happy, engaged employees. Calibrate your corporate culture and they will take care of one another!

Put another way, jobs stay stable when customers are happy. If customers are not happy—perhaps because the company’s processes are unstable and the customer is not being consistently served well—jobs are lost. Everyone wants the former; no one wants the latter.

Again, Lean strategies and other tools are not destined to fail or succeed in and of themselves. The difference between their failure and their success is this: they will succeed if they cause people to think about their own work processes. They will succeed if they increase creativity, collaboration, and motivation among the employees. They will fail otherwise. Again, this is largely a function of whether you respect and invest in the tools; if you don’t, they won’t.

I’d pause to emphasize collaboration, because that’s one of the major catalysts that sustains a continuous improvement culture. Whenever people are able to constructively come together about work, their creativity spikes and their motivation increases—plus, in solving problems, two heads are always better than one. Part of your time and resources for training should focus on collaboration within structure, because it will be an enormous help to everything you’re trying to accomplish.

Let me summarize what we’ve discussed, so you have it all in one place:

Lean success is sustained only when leaders and managers develop high trust and problem-solving environments and align incentives to foster an educated and trained workforce that is empowered to work horizontally along the path of workflow.  The goal is always to yield a quality employee, who then yields a quality product.   

Hans Christian Andersen wrote a children’s short story entitled, The Emperor’s New Suit.  The story illustrates the blinding ambitions of a great emperor who desired to wear the finest silk in the world.  Slave to his own desire to possess the best, swindlers fed his foolish ambition, explaining that their silk is so exceptional and magical it appears invisible to any man who was unfit for his office or unpardonably stupid. Silenced by fear, nobody in the kingdom admitted they saw nothing. The Emperor’s invisible clothes were greatly admired. Finally, a little child, with no fear of criticism, standing or retribution cried, “Good heavens, he has nothing on at all!” That made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right; sadly he thought to himself, “Now I must bear up to the end.”

In a true Lean management culture you do not have to have all the answers, but you must build a cultural environment that makes it safe for your people to speak truth and resolve conflict. If your Lean launch has grown cold, you must begin by sincerely asking the people why the tools have not lasted, or worked. If your culture and its effects are truly invisible—like the emperor’s clothes—it is a reflection of something, and maybe it’s time to start again, this time more seriously.

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