KAIZEN is a culture, not one time activity – Part I of II

BY DAVID MANN - 2016-04-15

Remember that we can define culture in a work organization as the sum of its individuals’ work habits. A related way to think of culture is that it is the knowledge an adult needs of how things are done to stay out of trouble as a member of a group. One of the interesting things about culture is that for group members, culture is invisible. It is the things that are given, or “the way we do things around here.” It is typical not to question this kind of thing, or even to realize there are alternatives to it. Yet, it is easily possible to “see” work culture in a production environment by asking basic questions about common practices, such as these:

1. What are inventory practices around here?
2. How often does management look at the status of production?
3. Who is involved in process-improvement activities in this area?

Asking these questions would reveal some of the distinctions between the cultures in conventional and lean production environments.

The examples in Table give a partial picture of the pervasiveness and everyday manifestation of culture in mass and lean production, as well as how they differ from each other. It is made up of myriad habits and practices that
make it possible for all of us to go through the work day without having constantly to think about who, what, where, when, how, and so on.

Culture allows us to operate more or less on autopilot during the workday. By the same token, a distinct culture also makes it easy to identify countercultural behaviors, practices, or events. In most groups, these tend not to take root without many other things changing.

Overcoming Cultural Inertia

One implication of culture as a collection of habits and practices is that it has incredible inertia and momentum going for it. Cultural inertia is like a body in motion tending to stay in motion in the same direction unless acted on by an external force. Conventional mass production systems include a culture. So do lean production systems. When you change the physical arrangements from batch to lean, however, the culture does not make a similar change unless specific action is taken to replace one management system with another. That’s the parallel
lean implementation noted earlier, implementing the lean management system.

Conventional habits and practices live on, even if the layout, material, and information flows have changed. In one example, operators whose area switched from MRP schedules to pull signals were quite inventive in figuring out

how to get access to a copy of the MRP schedule, which they then followed regardless of the pull signals. In this case, the fabrication operators regularly overproduced according to the discarded schedule they retrieved every day from a trashcan near the dispatch office. It was not until they were found out, and the schedule paperwork began to be regularly shredded, that they had to follow the pull signals. Another common occurrence is for operators in newly converted flow lines transformed from batch build to go right on building. When the line fills up, it is typical to see the overproduction stacked on the floor, overstacked
on conveyors, overflowing containers, etc. 

New Settings With Old Habits Won’t Work

It is typical to see supervisors and team leaders in a newly rearranged area rushing off here and there to chase parts or jump onto the line to run production. In some cases, it is nearly impossible to convince supervisors or team leaders to make the hourly entries on production tracking charts because they are “too busy” to get to
this task. Then, once the tracking charts are actually filled out, it is not unusual to see them simply pile up on (or under) a supervisor’s desk with no attention at all to the interruptions documented on the charts. If the schedule has been met, there is no interest in what is on that “paperwork.” And if the schedule hasn’t been met, there is “real work” to be done; no time to waste with these records of interruption! That will not get the schedule out today, and in the old— and ingrained—culture, that is all that counts.

In conventional mass production, it is seen as important to be busy doing something directly physically linked to production. Waiting for a production instruction card to arrive before starting to produce simply seems wrong. Standing and waiting for the next piece to come down a progressive build line is definitely countercultural in the mass production world. In such an environment, these interruptions in the rhythm of production are not considered to be valuable diagnostic information, signaling an abnormal condition in the production system;
that is for sure! Relying on the reduced inventory of parts called for in a pull system seems sure to lead to stock-outs down the line. There is no perceived value in recording data that documents the operation of the process. Action is what counts, and if it is based on gut feel and experience, it must be right, because “…that’s the way we get things done around here!”

These are only a few habits of thought, interpretation, and action that people absorb as part of the culture in a mass production environment. They are at clear variance with the kinds of habits and daily practices necessary for the precise and disciplined execution lean systems need in order to meet their promise for productivity, quality, and ongoing improvement. Table 1.2 compares a few of the ways in which mass and lean cultures differ. Many mass production cultural practices are strikingly tied to longstanding ways of relating to others at work. In contrast, many lean practices are related to disciplined adherence to defined processes.

Acknowledgement: Book-Creating a lean culture by David Mann

Gemba Kaizen