Lean manufacturing practices are more effective in countries and companies that have more collectivist or group cultures than individualist cultures. In addition, nation trumps organization: a plant’s collectivist organizational culture will not overcome the individualistic culture of the country in which it is located.
Developed in Japan, lean manufacturing introduced tools, processes and a mindset that eliminated waste and ensured the smooth flow of production without sacrificing quality. Kanban, a system that sounds the alert when a component in the production process is running low, and TPM, a proactive approach to equipment maintenance, are just two examples of lean manufacturing tools.
It is no accident that lean manufacturing was developed in Japan, a nation with a highly collectivist culture. Lean manufacturing requires a group approach to manufacturing with different people in different locations on the plant floor working as a team. A new study explored the impact of individualistic vs. collectivist cultures at both the national and organizational level on the effectiveness of lean manufacturing.
The study’s data was collected from in-depth surveys of managers in more than 900 plants in Australia, Europe and the U.S. The surveys included questions related to the general business profile of the company, followed by sections on plant and equipment, organization and culture, and performance (for example, manufacturing cycle times and quality).
For information on national cultures, the study, conducted by a research team from Spain, the U.S. and Ireland, used the seminal research of Geert Hofstede, who measured the level of individualism in nations around the globe.
Analysing the interaction of national and organizational culture on lean manufacturing, the study confirmed that lean manufacturing is more successful — i.e. leads to better performance results — in plants located in countries with collectivist cultures. It also showed that lean manufacturing is more successful in plants that have a collectivist organizational culture.
The researchers then deepened their analysis of the data to investigate a third question: Can a manufacturing plant’s collectivist culture overcome the disadvantage of a country’s individualist culture?
The results of the research were unequivocal: organizational culture — even though it may be the type of culture that is conducive to lean manufacturing — will not overpower national culture.
The research has direct managerial implications. First, a collectivist or group culture in a manufacturing plant is vital to the success of lean manufacturing initiatives. Managers must not only emphasize to their employees the importance of team, they must also ensure that the procedures and attitudes of their plant supports collectivist-oriented goals, such as group work and employee involvement and training.
The second and perhaps higher-level implication of the study concerns the location of manufacturing plants. Managers and executives must be aware that plants located in countries with individualistic cultures will achieve lower performance improvements from lean initiatives. Executives choosing plant locations or considering joint ventures might want to include this factor in their decision-making processes.
The disadvantage of plants in individualistic countries might also be considered when comparing and evaluating the results of these plants with those in collectivist countries. As shown, despite the best efforts to inculcate a collectivist culture, there is only so much plant managers can do to overcome the national characteristics of their employees.
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