Most organizations have missed the mark on transforming culture as the critical foundation to any strategic improvement or transformation initiative. Culture is key to sustainable Lean and CI success because it involves deep, continuous behavioral alignment learning and human development.  A fanatical focus on the methodologies and tools is analytical learning, which is much easier but not sustainable without a winning cultural foundation. Decades of Lean and CI programs with their respective birth-death cycles have moved the needle of culture change in many different confusing directions.  Today, the cultural climate in far too many organizations is like a worn flat tire, and they’re not going very far until they change it.  Too many organizations are so blindly committed to their current initiatives (which are not working so well), and are not able (on their own) to put the keys down and rethink their journeys.  Even though we’re talking about Lean and CI, the real problem is resistance to change.


“Today, the cultural climate in far too many organizations is like a worn flat tire, and they’re not going very far until they change it.” 



Organizations must recognize and accept transforming culture is a living, structured, deliberate, consistent, and continuous process of cultural development. Cultural development occurs from the top down leadership behaviors, choices, and daily actions.  Cultural transformation is a living response to (good and bad) leadership behaviors, choices and daily actions and occurs from the bottom up.  Culture changes by choice, not by chance. This post provides new insights about how to treat cultural transformation as a living process and achieve superior and sustainable performance with your Lean and other strategic and operational improvement initiatives.



Culture Change is a Living Process

How should organizations approach these challenges? It helps to think about culture change as a continuing deliberate process of development, nurturing, reinforcement, and renewal. In my recent book, Global KATA: Success Through The Lean Business System Reference Model, I presented a process perspective of how to develop, nurture, reinforce, and renew cultural transformation. The remainder of this post provides an overview of this process. Culture change is a deliberate process of defining, nurturing, reinforcing, and renewing the complex human attributes of culture. Using a process approach, executives can establish goals, implement culture change activities, listen to the voice of the organization, measure gaps between current and desired performance, and make the right necessary course corrections to keep culture change in a continuously developing mode.


 Internalization – The Goal

Internalization is a process of transforming culture through critical mass acceptance. Internalization is the deliberate, human-focused process of installing shared beliefs, values, assumptions, attitudes, and organizational best practices about improvement into the consciousness of individuals, groups, and the organization as a whole. Over time, internalization becomes the acceptance of a set of norms, strategies, and expectations established by and maintained by leadership. The process begins with defining, communicating, and learning the desired cultural values and attributes. Then people go through a process of understanding why these values are critical to success and why they make sense. Finally they accept the norm as their own created viewpoint. In effect, internalization is the interpretation process of formal and informal communication that creates cultural conditions and shapes Kata.

The diagram below provides an overview of the internalization of adaptive systematic improvement. Note that the diagram represents a single cycle of cultural evolution, which is a continuous, never-ending role for executives. Discussing culture and how to cause it to evolve to higher standards of excellence may sound a bit Zen-like and Freudian, but it is more common sense than anything else.





This deliberate and longer-term process of internalization is achieved through proactive management of four specific cultural conditions:

  • Projection
  • Introjection
  • Identification
  • Incorporation

These cultural conditions are dynamic and easily influenced by real and perceived events. They require continuous attention and management so that they can continue to transform culture in a positive direction. When the gurus of the past 30 years talked about continuous improvement as a relentless, never-ending process, they meant what they said. Continuous improvement is not easy; It has taken Toyota 70 years and counting to get to where it is today. Like everything else it becomes automatic and routine (Kata) at the mastery stage.


Projection is the initial defense mechanisms that occur in response to improvement and change. Fear is the major driver of projection because individuals are afraid of all the perceived loss, effort, commitment, discipline, sacrifice, risk of failure, and disruption to their established norms. When individuals do not understand the what, when, where, why, who, and how of improvement, they fabricate negative thoughts. The more people think about change, the perceived losses, and their unanswered questions, the larger their initial barriers grow. The signs of resistance are obvious: silence, deflection, criticism, confusion, denial, easy agreement, pocket vetoes, excuses, or “whatabout-itis.” Projection is the attempt people make to put space between the inner self (norms) and the external environment (change).

Projection is also positive. Every organization has the initiators and early enlistees of improvement. These associates generally have positive attitudes and see the glass as half full instead of half empty. They may have similar concerns as others, but they see more good than bad in improvement. Leadership, communication, and education are the means of dealing with projection. This phase is the early stage of the next cultural condition called Introjection.


Introjection is a group version of projection. As associates begin talking with each other about their individual perceptions of change, the exchange (positive or negative) becomes a collection of data points that shapes the perceptions and visions of improvement and change. Associates are drawn into beliefs or are influenced by others internally by the communication that they are receiving from the external space. Through this cultural condition, individuals replicate in themselves the behaviors, decisions, actions, attributes, or other fragments of associates around them, especially leadership or lack thereof.

Introjection is a dynamic process that continues to be influenced and shaped by communication and direct engagement in the improvement process. The shared beliefs, values, and assumptions about improvement are influenced by inconsistent versions of improvement, wavering leadership, a perceived or actual change in commitment, and other leadership behaviors, decisions, and actions. This in turn can change the behaviors of groups or individuals positively or negatively and the organization’s ultimate commitment to improvement. Constancy of purpose, effective communication strategies, and “walk the talk” best practices leadership behaviors are the best methods for dealing with introjection.



Identification is the cultural condition in which individuals seek to become an integral part of the larger group in terms of shared beliefs, values, and assumptions about improvement. Many of these associates are the “Show-me, I’m from Missouri” people in the organization. This is actually a favorable condition because it increases the attention to and desire to demonstrate success. Once they either experience or understand improvement, they jump on the train. Through this cultural condition, internalization occurs through the transformation of individuals, groups, and the organization, wholly or partially, after the role models of leadership and other champions of change. It is in this phase that the new personalities of individuals, groups, and the organization are formed. This is the phase where, with enough participation, cultural transformation is visible in the way associates think and work every day.



The final cultural condition of internalization is incorporation. This is the psychological and social ingestion of the philosophy of improvement as well as the systemized process of improvement. Incorporation is undeniably a cultural standard of excellence—in improvement strategy, deployment plans, values and code of conduct, individual behaviors, education, performance expectations, self-management, decisions and actions in associates’ own daily work, and their interactions with the entire organization. Cultural transformation is extremely visible in the way associates think and work and how they are intolerant of the mediocrity of those around them. Incorporation implies permanence in shared beliefs, values, and assumptions about improvement that are glued into culture— and that lead to the rhapsody level of continuous improvement. Remember that this is all a state in time; culture and adaptive systematic improvement as a whole require continuous renewal and nurturing to continue the positive evolution cycles.



Socialization: The Operating System of Internalization

Socialization is not a cultural condition in itself, but it is an important part of every cultural condition of internalization. Socialization is the ongoing transfer of information and nurturing of the organization’s mission, vision, shared beliefs, values, expectations, and standard code of conduct. The goal of socialization is to manage and minimize the disruptions of the various cultural states, to grease entry of internalization by whatever means necessary. Cultural evolution is simplified when executives have the full trust, loyalty, and commitment of their entire organization. Socialization helps to establish this unity of purpose between the organization and its associates, but it goes beyond communication. Socialization develops knowledge, skills, and personality characteristics within individuals so that they can function successfully within the broader context of the organization. This occurs through many directions: from leadership and/or organizational development to employees, from older employees to newer employees, exchanges between individuals in a department, exchanges between functional areas, from an experienced improvement resource to a new team, from a formal buddy or mentoring process, from interactions with champion employees, through a center of excellence in the company, and from many other directions.

These are common practices at Toyota for the past 75 years, and several U.S. organizations who really get it. For everyone else (the majority of U.S. organizations), you have invested nearly 30-50 years in Lean and other related CI initiatives and still have a long way to go.  Culture is the missing link to true engagement, empowerment, human capital development, and autonomous self-management . . . Which are keys to superior and sustainable success.



Company culture is a critical success factor in Lean transformation initiatives, and digital transformation impacts three areas of opportunities, in their order of importance: people, process and technology. Remember that culture is a dynamic moving target established, nurtured, reinforced, and renewed by leadership. The outcome is directly proportional to how the dimensions and attributes of culture are defined and developed via leadership’s behaviors, choices, and actions.

Culture change is the deliberate leadership and positive influence of these deep seated, established standards that contribute to the organization’s behavioral stability. Culture change requires self-reinforcing repetitious affirmations through situational conditions (i.e.”Walk the talk”) where there exists natural resistant to change. As we mentioned earlier, the perception of change is highly influenced by past change experiences and outcomes. If executives and their organizations have been through a series of failed attempts at change, these experiences reinforce that change is not welcome.

Organizations with a weak continuous improvement culture will most likely struggle with larger business system transformation initiatives. Transformation and more holistic business systems approaches require much more than methodologies and tools, technology, and new equipment investments. People and culture still remain as the foundation for success. The answer is simple but not easy:  Build a winning culture and achieve superior and sustainable success in planning, deployment, and execution of any and all major strategic, operational, or technology improvement initiatives. People and culture still remains as the core foundation for sustainable success.



Need help with executing successful change management to improve your lean transformation process?  We do this for a living. 


The Center for Excellence in Operations, Inc. (CEO) is engaged with many different clients every day, within a variety of industries, operating environments, and with different Lean/CI and cultural renewal challenges.  We can get your Lean/CI initiatives back on track and operating at a much higher order, daily business system model level.

Contact one of the authors below.  We will be happy to discuss your current situation and needs.



Terence T. Burton is President and Founder of The Center for Excellence in Operations, Inc. (CEO), a management consulting firm specializing in strategic and operational transformation. Terry has four decades of extensive operations and supply chain experience as a hands-on practitioner and executive in private industry, and has led consulting engagements in a wide spectrum of industries, having consulted with over 350 clients in 23 countries on their strategic and operations improvement initiatives. Terry can be reached directly at burton@ceobreakthrough.com


Edward A. Fagundes is the West Coast Practice Director for The Center for Excellence in Operations, Inc. (CEO), with emphasis on serving clients in the West Coast, United States region. Ed’s career spans various leadership roles in general management and as a global business system executive. He has proven expertise and extensive experience with improving business processes, developing lean transformation strategies and plans, leading the implementation of business improvement journeys to address business issues, and implementing enterprise-wide continuous improvement applications. Ed can be reached directly at edfagundes1@yahoo.com.