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Overcoming cultural differences in Lean rollout

cultural differences

May 4, 2018

After reading this very interesting article by Katie Anderson recently, my thoughts turned to the challenge of how to overcome cultural differences when implementing Lean, particularly across borders.  Reflecting on our last blog (which looked at how to manage a successful Lean rollout), it occurs to me that much of the resistance encountered during deployment can be traced back to cultural variances of behaviour, perception and interaction.

Of course, there are many different kinds of culture at play: the culture of a particular organisation (or even department within an organisation), the cultural nuances of an individual employee (derived from their family and social background) and the broader culture of the country or continent where the business is situated. It’s a complex picture, but there are some key aspects of cultural differences to take into account.

1. Hierarchy

Many cultures place considerable emphasis on hierarchical structures, particularly in the workplace. As Katie Anderson points out, even in Japan – the birthplace of Lean – there is a strong tradition of ‘command and control’ leadership. In such situations, encouraging those from the ‘lower orders’ to speak up and persuading those at the top to dial down the dogma is a major challenge.

While you won’t be able to change attitudes towards leadership and serfdom overnight, breaking down hierarchies is essential for Lean. Try putting together new, cross-functional teams which do away with job titles based on seniority. You also need to redefine what it is to be a leader, as Toyota has done by “changing the function of hierarchy from one in which people look to the leader for answers to one in which leaders set the direction and then help their people work towards the goal.” Coaching and consistency will, over time, have a big impact and, ultimately, you should see staff at all levels of the organisation flourish as they shake off their shackles.

2. Attitude to rules

Some cultures are far more rule-driven than others and workers’ attitudes to regulations can have a major impact on Lean deployment. In a culture of mavericks and rebels, instilling order and methodical practices will be tricky. On the flipside, a culture of almost blind obedience to the rules can result in a dearth of innovation and creative thinking to solve problems, not to mention a resistance to change.

Even within Lean there is complexity around rule making and breaking: employees must be willing to work to a certain standard and methodology in order to reduce waste and inefficiency, but you also need them to feel empowered to improve continuously. When aiming to overcome such cultural differences in your Lean rollout, first you must identify the attitude to rules within the organisation.

In seeking to find the right balance, good communication is vital so that all staff understand where the lines are drawn. Whether you are trying to tighten or relax the regulatory environment, be clear on what is expected of people and explain why. It’s also important to show them the benefits of the changes at both a personal and organisational level.

3. Teaching and learning techniques

The implementation of Lean is a huge learning curve for any organisation and its staff, where training lies at the heart of the process. As a result, much can be predicted about how easily a group of workers may or may not adapt to a Lean regime by looking at the country’s education system and how pupils are taught.

In different cultures the teaching style used in schools can vary enormously, and in many places learning by rote is still the norm. While this kind of fact-based, teacher-led training tends to produce a good, standardised level of education, it does not foster innovation or creativity. There is no room for students to explore under their own initiative or develop new approaches to problem solving, so in the workplace this can lead to reticence to take on new and unusual practices.

Another consequence may be a fear of failure or an inability to react positively when something doesn’t go well. Since learning from mistakes is central to Lean implementation, you will need to invest in helping staff to bounce back from failure and see setbacks as a positive step towards improvement, rather than a killer blow.

4. Communication style

Good communication at all levels of an organisation is fundamental to Lean. This is particularly true during rollout, and doubly important when crossing international borders.  Difficulties with communication can start with the simple fact of a language barrier, but cultural differences can run much deeper and have a far wider impact on effective communication.

Even within a relatively small area such as Western Europe you can find vastly different communication styles (compare the very direct approach of the French and Germans with the more diplomatic or obfuscating Brits), which can very easily lead to misunderstanding or mistrust.

When taking a Lean initiative from one side of the world to the other, this challenge may be magnified many times over. As an example, this academic paper by Zimmerman and Bollbach explores the Institutional and cultural barriers to transferring Lean production to China: evidence from a German automotive components manufacturer and makes some interesting observations about the mismatch of direct and indirect communication styles of the two cultures.

There is no easy answer to the communication conundrum, but it seems to be the case that the more time and effort the various parties put in to understanding each other better, the more effective communication will become. As is clear from Zimmerman and Bollbach’s thesis, the complexities of overcoming cultural differences during Lean rollout are myriad, but this doesn’t stand in the way of global commerce. As Toyota itself has shown, with a concerted effort and a united focus, it is possible for Lean to not just survive but thrive as it crosses international borders.

As always, I’d welcome your thoughts and experiences on the topic. Furthermore, if you need help or support with your own international Lean rollout, I’d be happy to provide it. You can contact me via [email protected] or on Twitter @kumo_ian.

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