The Missing Piece: How Culture Drives Operational Success in Lean Manufacturing

March 05, 2024
  • Headshot of Audie M Penn, member of the Lean Certification Alliance Oversight and Appeals Committee.
    By Audie Penn
    Audie Penn Consulting

Audie M Penn, LGC, LSC, LBC, is a member of the Lean Certification Alliance Oversight and Appeals Committee. He is principal of Audie Penn Consulting, a firm specializing in the deployment of Operational Excellence. His focus is executing Strategy Deployment and training executives and local plant staff to execute process improvements and achieve targeted results. 

The Missing Piece: How Culture Drives Operational Success in Lean Manufacturing 

When organizations look great on paper but do not seem to be performing to their potential, we usually find the culprit is something lacking in the culture. The missing piece is often called discretionary effort, which is the energy or commitment one offers to another and, when applied across an operation, serves as an intangible influence that drives success. 

Discretionary effort is not a term we hear every day. It is, however, a power we hope to encounter every day. Unless you are a human resource specialist or executive leadership coach, your exposure to the idea might be a bit limited, and rightly so. Measuring discretionary effort is next to impossible. The best we can do is an employee opinion survey or some form of information gathering that can only proxy the real measure.  

Quantifiable or not, we need to nurture the behavior. There is a term I have recently stumbled across, incensive power. If you look this word up in the dictionary, you will struggle to find its meaning. One definition suggests its meaning to be ‘tending to excite or provoke’. It is what gets us to move or do something. We might think volition with energy behind it. It is our will to do something. When we combine incensive power with intellectual power and appetitive power -- our thoughts, our desires, and our will -- we just might get somewhere. 

Leadership practices carry a value in this formula. A positive leadership presence, and its intersection with thought, desire, and will, produces great discretionary effort. A negative leadership presence creates the opposite. Studies suggest the average improvement in productivity to be 30% when a positive leadership presence replaces the negative. In best case, or worse if you can see both angles, it can be upwards of 60%. That is a tremendous cost.  

What does this have to do with lean? I always seem to drift back to the failure rate many executives experience in their lean implementations: 80% to 90% fail. Ask them why, and they cannot give an answer. “We did everything right.” No, you did everything you were told. What you did was not incorrect; it was incomplete. Most practitioners are tactical, unaware of the critical integrative and strategic elements in lean. The lean certification alliance identifies all three. The Bronze, Silver, and Gold certifications are the tactical, integrative, and strategic elements, respectively.  

When we examine the Gold-level focus, we notice a shift in emphasis in the body of knowledge. All three levels operate out of the same body of knowledge, but what changes is the focus and responsibilities that each level takes on. When the entire scope of work then resides in a single tactical practitioner, we have a failure mode that most organizations do not recognize, but experience. The trinity of tactical, integrative, and strategic must work together for success.  

When I work with executive boards, I like to go back to the basics. The agreements between the board and the CEO encompass customer value, resource allocation, and culture. In my work, strategy deployment includes understanding and defining customer value and how we allocate our resources to accomplish it. That leaves the question of culture, and why is it part of the executive agreement?  

Culture reflects leadership, and leadership presence is the primary catalyst in creating discretionary effort. If we are not working on improving leadership presence, we are ignoring potentially 60% of our productivity. No business can survive for any respectable period operating with a 60% productivity detriment. Culture is power.  

One of the primary root causes of that failure rate can be found in the last sentence. Culture is power. It is not about force. These are vastly different concepts. Power comes from influence. Force is coercive and invasive. Force is a power destroyer. No one who is forced to work chooses to offer excess energy. I have seen the difference. When force is your primary leadership tool, the leader is then forced to pursue the necessary effort for their teams to meet the minimum performance requirements. Effort is drawn out of team members and the vicious cycle feeds itself in the downward spiral. The opposite is also true. A positive leadership presence creates a new way to think about work, the desire to succeed, and the will to exceed. The spiral carries teams and departments, functions and facilities to heights never achieved or thought possible. Do you have the Operational Excellence Culture?  

So, we can put it all together now. If your lean program is made up only of tactical work, the tools of process improvement alone, you have no sustaining mechanisms found in the integrative system, your teams are disconnected from the strategic imperatives due to a lack of clarity, and you are constantly using your energy to draw effort from the teams because your culture is less than it could be. If you are missing any of the elements in the four-part system, your implementation will fail to reach the potential found in every organizational community. Operational Excellence works in any industry in any organization, anytime and anywhere. The problem isn’t what you are doing, it is what is missing. I have repeated my mantra for many years – what you’re doing is not incorrect, it is incomplete. 

Read the series on Operational Excellence and Lean initiatives, Successful Implementation of Lean, Why Lean Doesn’t Work and Reach New Levels with Lean.

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