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Thursday, December 12, 2013

What is Culture & Change?

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?

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

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