A group of social anthropologists settled on a working definition of “culture” in 1953, in an exploration of success factors for introducing technical change in traditional cultures. Organizations like the UN started intruding with the intention of bettering the lives of people and bringing the benefits of modern civilization.
For example, “experts” wanted to get farmers to use tractors and different plowing patterns, when the local people believed that Mother Earth should be used gently and rituals should be performed before disturbing her. Public health experts wanted to immunize people against illnesses when the traditional people had no reason to believe that injecting an unknown substance into the body would be safe or effective. (See Atul Gawande’s recent article Slow Ideas in the New Yorker)
I see a parallel between creating cultural conflicts in faraway lands and our desire today to introduce lean management to an organization operating under traditional management methods. Both are based on beliefs. We talk a lot about bad corporate culture and change it for the better, but don’t often look at culture from the anthropological perspective.
An earlier post in Lean Reflections looked at two psychological principles of change. Let’s continue…
3. Change must be seen from the point of view of the individuals exposed to the change. How does the change look to the person it will directly -- or indirectly -- affect? The expert’s “better way” may represent a rejection of gods, a loss of magical defenses, a loss of face, or damage to some other aspect of a traditional culture. To understand complexities of a culture takes time for observation.
Rejection, loss, damage… no lean champion wants these results. In their enthusiasm and belief in their message, they can forget that the people on the receiving end of change can feel bad. Sometimes change leaders wonder why people don’t immediately agree with them. They complain that the people just don’t listen.
Are gods and magical defenses threatened in a lean transformation? How often to we trash Frederick Taylor and try to knock him off his pedestal? If we, in effect, elevate Ohno or Shingo to godhood, will that convert anyone to the lean belief system.
Magical defenses? What about a magical belief that large-scale automation is always good? That high stock prices mean management decisions will magically produce long-term profits. That building to inventory is a good use of slack time and a magical defense against order peaks and unanticipated stockouts. Such defenses can’t be given up easily. Challenge them gently.
Are people losing face when their organization is changing? For many managers and supervisors, their jobs may be a big part of their self-image. It can be perceived as a psychological attack to hearing that they have been wrong throughout their careers. They may need private coaching. Certainly, criticizing them or their methods in front of employees is a mistake. If given credit for their strengths and knowledge, their feeling of being respected is preserved.
Front-line workers are no different. Everyone has some pride in their work. If they feel undermined or embarrassed, they will resist.
The potential for damage to the organization’s traditional culture is obvious. Even if a large part of the culture seem dysfunctional, it is part of a belief system. As with any system, pulling one thread may cause more unraveling than expected. Avoiding damage takes a deep understanding of the system before change is introduced, and that takes time.