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Is Lean manufacturing (aka The Toyota Production System) borderless?

October 30, 2015
Borderless Leadership

In the early days, people from the executive suite to the factory floor proclaimed that Lean wouldn’t work outside Japan, and certainly not in their country, industry or company… By Clark Harrison

In the 1980s, Toyota started to become famous not just for its cars and its growing global market share, but for its Toyota Production System (TPS). Indeed, the title of James Womack’s popular novel, The Machine That Changed the World, refers to Toyota’s system not its cars. Since that time, companies around the world have been trying to copy and implement TPS – or “Lean” – with varying levels of success. In the early days, people from the executive suite to the factory floor proclaimed that Lean wouldn’t work outside Japan, and certainly not in their country, industry or company…

Despite these persistent attitudes, there are enough documented successes in enough different places to dispel these myths. Yet doubt remains, and real troubles implementing Lean in different countries are reported daily among Lean practitioners, with some of the difficulties being attributed to national cultures. As a result, many Lean practitioners and change agents have struggled time and again with these questions:

  • Is there something in country X that makes Lean easier or harder to implement?
  • How big of a role does country culture play in Lean?
  • What impact does culture have on Lean?

Stories from successful companies implementing Lean around the globe, plus simply observing that Toyota successfully implements the same TPS wherever it operates, should be enough to answer that Lean is not something country-specific. If that is the case, then why are people still discussing it and claiming otherwise?

There are many layers of culture in a given company location. There are company cultures, local cultures and national cultures, just to pick three of the most prominent that are often at play. Peter Drucker, the renowned business guru, has said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” stating a clear view that culture does play a major role in anything a company wants to accomplish. But which elements of culture are really hindering Lean implementation?

While my experience implementing lean in multiple countries does not constitute a formal study, I have seen enough to form a clear picture in my mind, that each national culture presents different advantages and disadvantages for implementing lean. Additionally, supporting research is starting to surface that shows that there is no national culture that is “perfect” for Lean. There are numerous examples of Lean Transformations in nearly all countries that have both succeeded and failed. So what makes the difference?

Looking past the implementation phase to the phase where a company is operating as “lean”, one can observe common elements in the company culture that transcend the country culture. One researcher, Dr. Torbjørn Netland, has re-stated Drucker’s axiom to be “organizational culture eats national culture for lunch.”[1] He states that the goal of the Lean Transformation is to create a unified company culture regardless of national identity. But while all Lean Practitioners will agree with this goal, the question is how to get there. I have known many Lean Consultants who believe the approach must be the same no matter where they are, that Lean must remain pure and not adapt to local tastes. This so called “True North” logic of Lean has appeal, as it sounds simpler. But can one really arrive at a destination without knowing from where the journey starts?

In my view, the answer lies directly in the need to expand the definition of one of the first steps in a Lean Transformation. Lean practitioners are taught to understand the current situation before proceeding. There are a multitude of books and seminars on how to do this, the most popular of which details doing Value Stream Maps of the current and future states.[2] But in my experience, what is missing from the Current State Mapping exercise is a requirement to assess the culture. Although not taught this by any of my Lean Sensei, I have learned that first understanding the current state of the culture is essential for the Change Agent to formulate a real plan of implementation that will succeed. Critical to success is understanding that a Lean Transformation requires changing the culture, not just implementing tools like Kanban and 5S. The culture cannot be ignored or left alone, and it should not be changed without understanding the starting point.

Since the goal is to create a Lean system and culture that transcends national boundaries, then the Change Agent’s approach that has to consider the starting company culture conditions, which will invariably contain an influence of national and regional beliefs and behaviors. The following four very broad generalizations are based partially on my own experiences and partially on discussions with other practitioners, and help illustrate why adapting the approach to the national culture is so important:

  • Japan. It is a strong custom in Japan to at least “try” something suggested by a person, otherwise risk offending them and losing face. The Change Agent only needs to humbly propose a trial of a change in a limited area. During and after the trial, the people will evaluate the trial, and be willing to do a wider rollout if successful.
  • Germany. Germans don’t like to change without knowing that the result will actually work and be better. The Change Agent needs to show examples, possibly with external benchmarking, and help the local people see the outcome. Once they do, they will be faster and more efficient than other places implementing the change.
  • USA. Americans like things that are their own idea, and resist implementing ideas and things that are “not invented here.” The Change Agent needs to be a careful facilitator to help the people develop the changes for themselves. Once they have “ownership” they will also proceed rapidly.
  • Brazil. Brazilian culture has been described as having low individualism and high power distance.[3] This means that the Change Agent needs to be careful in how they make suggestions and really ensure that the locals understand each step before taking it – or they could go too fast incorrectly doing what they “think” the Change Agent meant.

In conclusion, I believe strongly that Lean is borderless and can be implemented successfully in any country, industry or company. But success depends heavily on the sophistication and experience of the Change Agent. Lean Transformation will only be successful if the Change Agent formulates the transformation plan while considering the true current state of the company, which includes an analysis of all of the cultural influences at play. Conversely, if the Change Agent is not able to tailor the Lean message so that it will be received by the organization, then the implementation has a much lower chance of success and a significantly higher chance of causing a major business disruption. As with most things in the lean community, Lean Transformation depends on leadership, and we are again reminded just how high the bar has to be set when selecting a Lean Change Agent.

[1]“Implementing lean thinking across different countries: why national cultures don’t matter” by Torbjørn Netland, 30-Oct-2014.

[2] Learning to See by Mike Rother and John Shook, 1998.

[3] The Hofstede Centre, “Cultural Tools Country Comparison”,

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