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Lean Culture Boosts Morale, Retention, Productivity

People have trouble saluting the flag if they can't see it," said Sam Miller, WMEP manufacturing specialist. In other words, if you expect to get the promised benefits of lean manufacturing, employees need to understand the vision and behaviors necessary to get there. Without that, your improvement efforts will fall short. With an empowering lean culture, employees can be proactive, energized, and drive rapid continuous improvements, bringing in dramatic bottom-line results.

Companies that have successfully instilled a lean culture consistently realize:

More innovative, team-directed solutions
Lower employee turnover
Better success at sustaining improvements
Greater numbers of improvement actions

Experts estimate that 80 percent of becoming a lean enterprise is culture related. An organization's culture dictates how people work, their attitudes toward work and change, their relationships with each other and management, and the way change is introduced, embraced and tackled. Culture is a driver of company health. Any company that wants to make sustainable improvements can benefit from a lean culture.

Having a lean culture means several things, but among them is that the company encourages employees to actively seek and act on solutions to problems.

To have a lean culture, companies need commitment from the top, says Miller who has 30 years of experience working on teams and company culture. "They need a clear vision of how they want to grow their business. It helps to translate the vision so people understand how they can support it." In represented companies, union involvement from the very beginning is critical, he said.

Retention and Turnover

Employee turnover costs companies between 25 percent and 150 percent of that employee's annual compensation, according to the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST). Companies can't afford to accept turnover as a fact of life.

Country Furniture by Schulers, Inc., in Janesville had an employee retention problem. Of the company's 50 employees, more than 39 left in the first part of last year. Company owners turned to WMEP to help work on a solution.

"It was one of our biggest goals since just before the end of last year," said Steve Schuler, vice president of operations. "We had started looking at work-center flow and we kept running into turnover problems when we would train people. So we put that entire project on hold while we stabilized the workforce."

A few improvements made a big difference, he said. Employees are excited about initiating change in the company. "We've gotten positive feedback about the changes. People are more a part of the team and they are more involved in making suggestions and decisions. Our people are just full of great ideas."

One of the ideas that came out of their Steering Team was to create a Safety Team. Since that time, all supervisors have gone through first-aid training, Schuler said. "We see that as a benefit to employees but also to our company."

Other manufacturing companies experiencing turnover problems shouldn't hesitate to do something about them, Schuler said. "Turnover is a really costly expense. If you can keep your employees at work and keep them happy, that's a big plus."

Employees are excited about the changes and it shows. So far this year, fewer than 10 employees have left the company, Schuler said. He estimates that the company saved more than $100,000 in turnover expenses in six months.


Lean culture also improves morale. Fixing this problem is tricky, but important because improvement projects go nowhere without employee support. Employees need camaraderie with their coworkers, and complaining about work is something that can bring them closer together because they are sharing the same experiences.

"When people talk to each other, they have a natural tendency to grumble," Miller said. "When you get them working on solutions, they have less to grumble about, so morale improves."

A lean culture encourages employees to make suggestions and changes in the company, empowering employees to take control and ownership of their work and make it better. Employees care about their work, their coworkers and their workplace and the company sees improved morale.

Addressing leadership behaviors, from the office to the line, is also a key component of implementing a lean culture. "Traditional authoritarian behaviors don't get what you want when you want people to think for themselves," Miller said. "Leaders need to do more asking and get people involved in finding solutions."

Sustaining Changes

As Country Furniture by Schulers experienced, making changes is difficult unless everyone is focused on the right goals. It's also challenging to sustain changes unless you work on culture, too. Berntsen International in Madison worked with WMEP on culture and developing strong internal teams to help steer the company. "One of the major reasons we worked on lean culture was that we needed to evaluate and streamline our processes," says Rhonda Rushing, president.

One symptom of the company's problems was that changes weren't happening. "Our business has been growing rapidly and I felt we were spinning our wheels trying to get things done," Rushing said. "We would start improvements but it was difficult to follow through." After working on teambuilding and culture, Rushing reports marked improvement in Berntsen's business. "As a result of the project, internal communication has improved tremendously and so has morale," she said. "We're getting more things done now because we're deciding on action items and people are doing them. It helped us pull everything together."

Lean and Culture

Even if you aren't planning to be a lean enterprise, sustaining any changes can be an uphill battle without the right company culture. It is easier, however, to change your culture while putting lean techniques into practice, mainly because it's easier for everyone to see the changes that lean causes in the company. The lean culture, through its team involvement, makes positive changes more evident to all employees, Miller said.

Changing the way a business runs is more than just moving machines, it means working with people, too.

Harness Employees' Brainpower Through Effective Coaching

Part of revving up your company includes harnessing all the brainpower your employees might usually keep to themselves. It takes a good coach to bring this out and foster a continuously learning company. Sam Miller, WMEP manufacturing specialist who has 30 years of experience working with companies on culture, teams and groups, suggests the following tips to becoming a better coach.

Recognize that everything that happens is a learning opportunity and make people aware of that.
Help employees find answers to questions rather than just giving them answers.
Encourage people to try new things and take risks, but...
Don't nail them if their risks don't pan out.
Catch people doing something right, praise in public, and criticize in private.
Give people the tools they need to find their own answers, and to succeed.

Copyright 2003 by

WMEP provides technical expertise and hands-on implementation assistance to small and midsize manufacturing firms on advanced manufacturing technologies and business practices includinglean manufacturing, ISO, value chain management, and strategic repositioning services for manufacturers and manufacturing facilities located in Wisconsin.

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