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Mike Rother

Mike Rother: Making Improvement & Adaptiveness Part of Your Culture

By Mike Rother, - Last updated: Saturday, February 20, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Question:  Does lean ever become part of the culture?

As implied in the question, the lean task is not just to introduce new techniques, principles or solutions, but to establish a culture of continuous improvement, adaptation and innovation. Here’s how I see the culture-change issue at the moment:

  1. Changing the culture requires changing mindset. Edgar Schein defines organization culture as the set of shared basic assumptions that operate unconsciously and govern behavior.  I think of culture as the personality or character of the organization. Organization culture, in turn, develops out of people’s mindset, which is a subconscious, habitual way of thinking and feeling that determines how a person interprets and responds to situations.
  2. According to psychology and brain research, to develop or change mindset people should practice a new behavior pattern. Mindset is not developed or changed by thinking about it, talking about it, incentives, benchmarking, classroom training, etc.  It is repeated physical experiences, with associated positive feelings, that produce mindset. (Note that the research findings do not say, change how we think and then apply a different behavior pattern. They say, change how we think by applying a different behavior pattern.)
  3. But in order to practice, you need to know what to practice. So the organization’s leaders should define the pattern(s) for everyone to practice. Such patterns are called “kata”.  Brain research has shown that humanist (autonomous) and behaviorist (carrot & stick) approaches, long a mainstay of management theory, alone do not work for changing mindset and culture.  The reason is that in such extrinsic-motivation approaches we humans naturally and unconsciously stick to existing, worn-in neural circuits. A task in regard to lean is to specify and practice a kata that develops a learning / improving mindset. What I call the “improvement kata” is an example of such a pattern.
  4. The practicing should be done under periodic observation of an experienced coach, just like in sports. It is hard to assess one’s own actions and see what adverse habits you need to work on, because we tend not to perceive our own habits. Without coaching, a change in mindset is unlikely.
  5. The need for coaching suggests that culture change happens more top-down than we may have thought. It also suggests that the leaders of the organization should be among the first to practice and learn the specified pattern, so they can guide others and understand the level of the organization’s current capabilities.

Theoretically we could practice a pattern and acquire a mindset that will then remain a part of the organization’s culture and be effective for working toward any challenging new objective. However, it may be that the need for practicing never goes away, because mastery of any skill is elusive, and because the actions required to deal with new situations, develop new solutions and reach new levels of performance are not predictable and require us to keep honing our problem-solving circuits. Toyota’s recent difficulties may also be a testament to the need for continued practicing of the organization’s kata.

If we want a continually-improving, adapting organization, then practicing and coaching a kata like Toyota’s improvement kata will probably become a large part of what leaders and managers do every day.

For more information have a look at the following web pages:

Kata Creates Culture

The Improvement Kata

Teaching a Kata

Mike

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