Lean, generative cultures and how to probe for them

Performance-oriented organizations that value transparency and empower their workforce were baptized generative cultures by Ron Westrum in 2004. This article will describe why lean, generative cultures might interest the reader and point out the "secrete sauce" in creating them: transforming behavior and communication. Note that despite having "lean" in the title, the text will deliberately ignore Lean's "customer value" aspect, focusing on the soft skills (respect and teamwork) and Kaizen (continuous improvement) instead. Finally, this post concludes with a reasonable way to probe if an organization has adopted such a culture, no matter if you are inside or outside that org.

According to Westrum, generative cultures place their utmost value on the flow of information. One might say they value transparency above all else. The industrial revolution came around by ensuring that data flows from the edges (workers/actors) to the centers (leaders). Even Napoleon's success as a military leader has been attributed to Napoleon creating an efficient flow of intelligence back to central command and control.

Generative cultures ensure the reverse flow of information back to the edges, too: In a self-evident example, imagine workers having access to real-time data about the sale of each type of product made in their factory. That would allow those workers to make Agile production decisions (i.e., swiftly and independently) without including a long and tedious communication chain through company silos and hierarchies. The (sausage) factory example also highlights the lean, bottom-up nature of such cultures: Namely, an organization's ability to build a workforce that can make decisions at the edges instead of relying on centralized decision-making structures. That requires that critical information gets to those workers who might be taking corrective actions based on it without impediment.

Beyond transparency, to cite Westrum, generative cultures exhibit high cooperation and teamwork with shared accountability, encourage bridging across organizational silos, follow the practice of Kaizen (continuous improvement), and provide fertile grounds for novel ideas to thrive. It requires an organization with high levels of trust among its people and leaders able to coach their teams on handling disagreements and conflict to unlock these benefits, thereby transforming the organization's culture.

One way to describe a generative culture is to compare it to its logical opposite, an imperative culture. In an imperative environment, management plans solutions behind closed doors that then get pushed down to the workers to execute. This puts workers under tutelage, as only solutions can be discussed (sometimes even that is discouraged), while analyzing the needs and problems is done for them - in fact, that is taken away from them. In generative cultures, both management and workers can propose the needs and problems that should be discussed, while the workers then generate the solutions. By engaging the workers to think through the organization's issues and asking them to design the solutions, basic human needs such as motivation and respect are met: Workers are challenged to come up with the solutions, and they can feel that management trusts them to identify and execute those solutions.

Therefore, the "secret sauce" is all about building engagement and dependability by gradually giving the workforce more decision-making authority. Information gets "stuck" if any manager in the company's reporting chain first has to "call the shots": Every time that happens, in the best case, a delay is introduced - and in the worst case, information is lost. Ultimately, an organization's ability to make the most optimal decisions and therefore reach the best possible business outcomes depends on surfacing the relevant data in time at those places where a change needs to transpire (which is, most often, at the edges).

Building such an enabled workforce requires a leadership team that trusts and respects its people. Respect refers to one of the five Lean values: Having a psychologically safe environment where leaders coach their teams in decision-making while providing all the necessary data. And (Lencioni's vulnerability-based) trust, among other things, implies that the leader is willing to rely on the team to make the right decisions instead of the leader making those decisions unilaterally. In other words, it requires leaders to face their ego and overcome inner fears by conceding decision-making powers to their reports ("Brave New Work"). Furthermore, it requires a leadership behavior that allows curiosity and collaboration to foster. That, in turn, needs managers with a broad range of abilities and a coaching mindset:

  • The ability to create a psychologically safe learning environment and teach continual self-improvement;
  • The ability to coach people on how to approach problems in a data-driven way to generate optimal solutions as a team;
  • Making all relevant information available while eradicating "the undiscussable" (Anything that a team should talk about but only get addressed in hallways, 1on1s, or among smaller groups.)
  • Plus all the "standard" ingredients that make up a great manager, such as providing structure & clarity, accountability, meaning, and impact.

While the reader might agree with all of the above, it can be a long path for an untrained person to acquire those skills. When I first encountered these ideas, I believed that I was practicing them already, only to discover that I was (and in some areas very much still am) nowhere close after a more detailed introspection of my behavior. Anyhow, the above description and links should provide the interested reader with more than sufficient material to take that path. Instead, in this blog post, I would like to conclude with an exciting way to probe if you, your team, your company, or even the company you are interviewing with is building a lean, generative culture.

The test is a short set of questions that you can ask, in any context, as a self-test, when talking to your future manager or out of general curiosity:

  • Transparency and information flow: People should be willing to disagree when they see things differently and openly share how they come to their views. Can you give some examples of how your team navigates disagreements and makes decisions? Can you explain how you increase teamwork among your reports?
  • Curiosity and continuous improvement: Teams should have a mutual learning mindset and be eager to improve continually. Can you provide concrete examples of how your team improves itself and learns together? What is the most exciting thing your team worked on or researched recently, and what did you learn?
  • Accountability and dependability: Everyone on the team should be encouraged to take full responsibility for their words, actions, and results. Can you give examples of how you ensure that your people can depend on each other? How do you motivate people to participate in meetings, take on responsibilities, and grow?
  • Core values and more Kaizen: What do you see as the organization's most significant strengths and weaknesses, and how are you acting on those insights?

The above questions are the "probes" I have designed to keep asking myself and track if I am improving as a leader. While I at least believe that the remaining core lean, generative culture values (compassion, respect, and trust) must be present if you can answer the above questions satisfactorily. I am sure the questions are not pixel perfect, so I would greatly welcome all constructive criticism if you see cleverer ways to design this test.