Leadership Operations

A Case Study In Cultural Change

Excerpt from Innovating Lean Six Sigma co-authored by Kimberly Watson-Hemphill.

A plastics manufacturer that was trying to come out of bankruptcy acknowledged that it had a culture of command-and-control management. The unstated mantra was, “”Do as I say”.” The company was turning to Lean Six Sigma to help it improve operationally, and the leaders realized that if the deployment was to work, they needed to create a new culture. They needed to emphasize inquiry and teamwork. They wanted to have managers ask, “”What do you think?”” more often and behave in ways that demonstrated, “”We are in this together”.”

The employees wanted to believe that the new management team was serious about this, but they were not easily convinced. The starting point was to create better alignment from top to bottom.

Everyone was educated about the new vision for the company’s future and why the old way of doing business was unsustainable given current market conditions. More important, though, this message was backed up with leadership behaviors that demonstrated support — every single day.

For example:

  • The general manager attended every shift change meeting every day, and would ask what he could do to help that shift achieve its goals and become more effective.
  • When behaviors didn’’t match values, the leaders took action to change those behaviors, up to and including termination for repeated violations.

Other changes were made as well. For example, to improve teamwork and collaboration, the production and maintenance departments created combined teams that were given more and more responsibility for production. These teams were trained not only on the tools of Lean Six Sigma, but also on the business and how the work of each team affected the business. Eventually, line maintenance and production associates could explain how their preventive maintenance procedures affected EBIDTA— not just parroting back what they’d been told, but explaining it in their own words.

With these kinds of changes, slowly the dictatorial “you do as I say” culture was replaced with high-performance work teams that understood how what they did on a day-to-day basis affected the company. And these cultural changes led to business results.

Over a three-year period, the company went from bankruptcy to having customers ask, “What have you done? Your quality is so good now!” and “Can you come show us how to improve that much?” If you’ve ever worked in an organization that was trying to change its values, you’ll know that it’s not easy.

Getting people to value the improvement process and tools is difficult, and if there aren’t simple steps they can take, they won’t do it. Even in this manufacturing company, where the future was bleak at the outset, there were a number of things about the new culture that some people didn’t like. As just one example, maintenance personnel had established the norm of taking their work breaks even if they were in the middle of fixing a production line that was down—which led to a lot of lost production hours. In the new mentality, getting the production line back up and running was the priority. Other people were uncomfortable with the new reliance on data, and still others with the emphasis on teamwork. In the end, some people opted out and chose to work somewhere else rather than change. However, on the whole, the cultural changes led to greater employee engagement, and the company experienced significant improvement.

Kimberly Watson-Hemphill founder and CEO of Firefly Consulting is a globally known expert in the field of Innovation and Operational Excellence and is a co-author of Fast Innovation. She has led global Lean Six Sigma deployments in multiple industries including one that saved over $1B.
Kristine Nissen Bradley is a Principal with Firefly Consulting. She is a certified Master Black Belt in both Lean Six Sigma and Design for Lean Six Sigma and has worked with thousands of business leaders to successfully deploy this methodology over the last 25 years.



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