Reprinted with permission from Target Magazine, the award-winning publication of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence.
In a recent survey, AME members said that their hottest topic is working culture. Art, music, and tribal anthropology may characterize ethnic culture, but what about working culture? Anthropologists agree that, like jazz, words inadequately describe any culture to someone not directly experiencing it. We “dig it,” or we don’t. Much about culture is implicit — sensed — not explicitly discussed. And the culture hardest for us to see and describe is our own, like that old conundrum: Does a fish see the water it swims in?
Despite the caveats, an emerging definition of working culture is, “How we do things around here.” It is the collective behavior of people using common habits, words, goals, systems, and symbols; and interwoven with processes, technologies, significant events, training — and a slew of other stuff that no one can explicitly gather in mind at once. All this melds and clashes to form our present working culture.
In addition, different individuals bring to the workplace their own uniqueness, ethnic culture, and life experience. From a managerial view, the quickest, easiest way to impose order on this mess is by command- and-control. Hierarchies form naturally, both in nature and in human society. Children on a playground establish a pecking order pretty fast.
If work isn’t complex, command-andcontrol gets it done. It worked well in closeformation warfare. Generals with a “commanding view” of a battlefield ordered into formation troops who abided by that famous line from Rudyard Kipling, “Ours is not to question why; ours is but to do or die.”
By the end of the 19th century, closeorder formation battles had gone the way of the cannonball. Individual soldiers had to employ more and more personal judgment. The military began to evolve away from detailed command-and-control.
In a complex environment, commandand- control breaks down. Bosses get overloaded. They take on staff — bureaucracy. Decisions may be better considered, but they take time. Control becomes more indirect, by systems like budgets. If quality performance requires tending to a host of details, staff and management bog down in that too. Capable people doing first-line work have to do it — in factories and elsewhere. But for this, they need systems of rapid lateral communication, like lean, high-visibility operations. High visibility should also prompt everyone to engage in process improvement daily, but they learn to do that only if leadership does more than “implement lean tools.” They must develop people to the maximum, creating a working culture to seize and overcome every problem. “Lean tool deployment” is symbiotic with developing a working culture in which all people constantly see and solve problems.
In this light, why is Ford’s Model T line obsolete? Ford engineered a lean physical flow, but ran it by command-and-control. Not only factory workers, but many others did only rote work. Managers, staff, and skilled trades did nearly all the process thinking.
The first Model T had 812 part numbers and no variations. Today, vehicles are much more complex; no two of them built on the same line may have exactly the same combination of features. Even little errors cause rework — or much worse. Completing each unit fault-free requires constant mental engagement. The need to constantly improve processes is obvious, but staff and management direct episodic process improvement. Befogged by their work role legacies, they can’t discern their major responsibility, which is developing workers to constantly improve processes.
The intent implicit in the Toyota Production System is to stimulate people to think constantly — a “self-running, selfimproving” system. Everyone, not just managers, can see what’s happening, and workers can whip problems at a more detailed level than staff. Ideally, even every bobble from a standard process by either man or machine should prompt why questions. That’s a new work culture. Creating this culture has been termed, “nemawashi,” thoroughly preparing enough soil for a transplanted tree to grow.
Such growth implies that a learning culture must permeate an entire company — or an entire enterprise. Excellent production doesn’t grow in isolation; it dies if a product is poorly designed. Customer satisfaction results from enterprise-wide performance, from initial customer contact to end-of-life product disposal. To grasp the scope of this, try mapping the customer experience from beginning to end, if you can. Or map the path of all material from “dirt to dirt,” or “cradle to cradle.” The need for a “lean learning culture” in a total enterprise becomes obvious, but conventional business organizations can’t begin to see this, and even today’s lean companies can’t begin to do it.
Can a working culture be transformed? Yes, but only if we realize that implementing lean is really planting the roots of a new working culture tree. The principles underlying TPS apply to any kind of work. Lean tools help apply those principles where the objective is exact replication, time after time. Not all work has that objective, and tools may vary; but all work involves processes, so all of it is subject to learning. Some learning is individual; some is organizational; and some is process. Process learning is another way to describe process improvement. For example, we might learn how to create high-efficiency, easily-modified vehicles lasting a century or more in service, a process whopper in scope, in which initial production would be only one small phase (a green version of the 15 year old three-day car scenario.)
Reality is that tackling the tamest version of any such ambition takes an enterprise- wide working culture revolution. In this issue, the Plug Power story describes a company consciously transforming its working culture to attain a vision closer to here-and-now.
Yes, a culture for working excellence can be created, totally changing “how we do things around here.” However, leadership to sustain anything that sweeping has to come from “the top.” Vacillation by new ownership or new management can confound it. An enterprise half one thing, and half another, isn’t pursuing excellence.