May 7, 2013

What is culture, and why is it so hard to change?

We talk about culture all the time. Somehow we decide that one company’s culture is bad, that lean can never succeed there, or that a bad culture in another company became a lean one.

I’ve always struggled to understand the basis for how the lean community defines culture. It seems to include a lot of opinion, anecdotal evidence, and judging.
In his writings about culture, Dr. Joseph Juran often cited a book that anthropologist
Margaret Mead edited in 1953. Mead was one of the founders of modern anthropology, and as did her colleagues, studied distinct and relatively isolated cultures in Africa, Pacific Islands, and the Americas. They observed in detail how technological changes affected cultures and the people within them.

From its post-World War II beginnings, the United Nations saw one of its missions as bettering the lives of people suffering because they lacked Western technologies that. Many cultures seemed to resist positive change, however. Efforts to introduce vaccines, plows made of iron rather than wood, pest control, or outboard motors often failed. People who sincerely wanted to help solve problems felt frustrated by having their improvements rejected. That led the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Federation for Mental Health to ask Margaret Mead to oversee a study of what caused technological change to succeed or fail. They were to find out what the psychological and sociological barriers to improvement were. How did technology affect the mental health of individuals? What would open people to the benefits of change?

As advocates of lean transformations, we are in the same situation. Lean is a technology, a science of how to do things. Company cultures seem to resist changing for the positive.

Do we have the right definition of culture? The anthropologists’ used this working definition:

“Culture is an abstraction from the body of learned behavior which a group of people, who share the same tradition, transmit entire to their children, and, in part, to adult immigrants who become members of the society. This definition includes the system of technology accepted and used in that group.”

I think these are some of the lessons for us of that definition:

1. It is an abstraction. Abstractions are concepts, ideas, invisible, hard to put into words, and not always easy to recognize. To make change, it is necessary to first observe and try to understand the culture from the perspective of the people. To change ideas, it is necessary to know what the existing ideas are, and how they function to make the society work. In addition, labeling an abstraction “good” or “bad” and oversimplifying what happens in an organization doesn’t tell us what to do differently to introduce lean where we think it will do good.

2. Behavior is the source of a culture. Changing what people do every day and how they do it will change culture -- reasons for the importance of standard work and continuous process improvement in lean. But an individual can’t change the pattern of daily life when it supports a sense of personal and community well-being. If the new behavior would violate a taboo, however unreasonable the taboo may seem to an outsider, the old one must remain unchanged.

3. Behavior is learned. It can be unlearned. A new way of doing things can be taught, practiced, and adopted. If individuals see it benefits themselves, their families, and their communities, they may decide to change.

4. Culture is transmitted to individuals as a whole, a system. Changing a part of it can cause unexpected and unintended results, some of them unpleasant or even disastrous.

The reason for the UNESCO study is to assess the effect of change on the mental health of individuals in the group being changed. In introducing lean, could we be traumatizing some people, making them depressed or angry? We are pulling the rug out from under their feet. In our culture, people won’t tell us when we cause psychological harm. Or we won’t listen when their complaints or silence are clues to take more seriously. Perhaps they are not just being unreasonable.

Nobody comes into an organization with the purpose of causing pain and suffering. If we could change our own behavior and approach, would starting a lean transformation be more successful?

In upcoming posts, I’ll be looking at what principles, explanations, and recommendations emerged from the study.

If you want to read along, look in the used book websites for Margaret Mead (editor), Cultural Patterns and Technical Change, UNESCO, Holland, 1953. A 1956 paper by Dr. Juran based on the lessons from the book, “Improving the Relationship between Staff and Line: An Assist from the Anthropologists,” can be downloaded from the Juran Institute.  Registration may be required. A Juran paper published in 1957, Cultural Patterns and Quality Control, is also available.


Rod Overall said...

Excellent insight on the fundamental concept of culture and its dynamics. Mead is one of my heroes. If more capitalist cultures (in particular manufacturers) understood the underlying values she found in her work and applied them to their business practices, we as a society would be in a much better place. Those cultures in companies practicing true lean, are healthy. An unhealthy cultural environment sucks the live blood out of the doing. Thats why I love the Shook push to follow the go see, ask why and show RESPECT! It's much the same thing Margaret did in her work in Africa. Thanks for refreshing my passion for the reason Why! cheers Rod

Robert Drescher said...

Hi Karen

I have found only one really easy to understand definition of culture: "culture is the sum total group accepted beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours, of any single defined group of people."

The definition has always worked for me and is easy for most people to understand.

Why change gets resisted is often dependent upon, factors such as; the frequency any group encounters change, how long since the last change occurred, how radical the change appears to be, and whether they had any say in the change. I have found any group that experiences change regularly are more willing to accept it. As well the long things remain stable the harder it is for a new change to be accepted. If changes start out as minor, and ideally almost unnoticeable it is easier to gain acceptance, as people experience more small changes that appear positive, they will than naturally be more will to accept larger changes, eventually as they get use to change they learn to embrace it. And lastly most groups that have a say in how change is to occur are by far more likely to accept it, everyone hates other forcing change upon them, it was exactly what UNESCO did and often still does (it dramatically reduces the odds of success when you drag people into the modern era kicking and screaming). I have seen firsthand how people can resist or accept major cultural change, it get far easier if they decided how it will happen, as opposed to someone telling them it has to.

Karen Wilhelm said...

Rod, thanks for reading the post and adding your view.

Richard, I like your definition. Your points are consistent with those made by the contributors, which I hope to detail in the coming weeks.

UNESCO and other big organizations still try to make change in a way it will harm people or just not give them what they think they want, while they waste a lot of money.

I doubt that this book was read by many people then or now, or they'd pay much more attention to better ways to introduce change. An approach to demand-based change is described in this old Lean Reflections post. has another interesting process for introducing technology.

Thanks for reading the blog and leaving your comment.

Flavia Ferrari Rossi said...

Excellent article Karen! This is my first time here and I liked a lot all the topics. When I started reading this one I immediately thought in Gemba. Culture for me is Gemba. Is to do together in the work station. Is to show how to do, how to implement and follow everything until to get consistent. Now I'm going to ready "The Gemba of Poverty". Congratulatios, Flavia.

Guy said...

I've resisted commenting on this post for some time now because it is a very complex issue. I don't have the time to convolve all of the comments, so I will add two ideas that might help someone else think through this more completely:
- Karen Armstrong (a theologian and philosopher) discussed conservative cultures in her book, The Battle for God. She described a conservative culture as one which is strongly biased against change because, for some reason, the people in the culture perceive that change puts some highly valued "thing" as risk of destruction. That thing can be a religious belief, life itself (e.g. for a subsistence agricultural community - UNESCO, pay attention), or a job.
- Lean is one tool for change. It has a purpose just as does a hammer. Like a hammer, it is a poor tool for problems it was not created to resolve. So, just as all problems are not nails, neither are they all amenable to correction with Lean techniques. Applying Lean to a dysfunctional organization will probably get you a very efficient dysfunctional organization. Other tools need to be used too.

Karen Wilhelm said...

Hello Guy and Flavia,

Thank you for your comments. Flavia, I hope you will subscribe to the blog and continue to read it and share your thoughts.

Guy, you make some excellent points. The issue of risk is also discussed in the book, and it is a real factor. People in the culture are afraid that the incomer will destroy something of value, and sometimes that happens, making any change in the future even more difficult. How many times have we heard of a failed attempt at a change program that left people bitter and mistrustful?

I think the recognition that if lean is applied as a simple tool, you are right. Efficiency will be gained, but the organization will not sustain the gain because it does not mean the organization will want to continue improving. It will take pushing or controlling from outside to keep the dysfunctional organization on track. the company's leaders may regard lean as a tool, and don't see how they have to change their thinking to be more respectful of people and willing to change themselves. Even that may not change the belief system of the organization as a whole, but it makes it much more likely that lean thinking -- not tool using -- will evolve. What are your experiences with both approaches to lean?


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