Travelling around Shanghai and North East China over the past few months, seeing factories of differing industries, one of the questions that I keep on posing to myself is whether China is ready for Lean. The one thing that is clear, whether it is manufacturing, assembly or commercial processes, that too many staff are chasing too little work. Quality control continues to be seen as a separate process and in some cases up to 40% of the workforce are focusing upon inspection and rework.

A number of locations have the typical 5S sloganeering while in reality there is not much evidence of a Lean approach in action. A number of organizations have completed training, assembly lines and workbenches have been laid out for one-piece flow but the production mangers/supervisors have not bought into the benefits of Lean and have slipped back into their old ways.

reason-and-emotionUnderstanding the challenges of rolling out Lean across an organization should not be solely focused upon the quality department, class-room training or the myriad of tools available. This is not a problem unique to China. In fact, China has a number of advantages when it comes to the principles of collaboration and team work. Additionally, Lean, TQC and many of the quality principles (e.g., continuous improvement, putting people and processes first) have their origins in Asia; Japan.

As a Lean and Change practitioner one of the things that I learnt very early on is that change is hard and that people hardly ever change unless there is a compelling reason – for them. When we think about approaching Change across the enterprises, across China there are some basic principles that do not change;

emotionsCo-create Change: Involve the people who have to live with the consequences of the change into the design of the change. Duh! A very basic principle requiring regular and open communication; both ways.

People first. Always.

  • Intrinsic Motivation: Understand the drivers and behavior that is driven by internal rewards.
  • Alignment: Simple, but not easy. Alignment isn’t a one-and-done exercise. Frequent dialogue and a stance of coaching and support by the change team is what facilitates alignment between people affected by the change from top leadership to front-line people.
  • Trust: It’s important to understand what motivates people, but it’s also important to align that with the organization’s goals.
  • Celebrate our differences: This is understanding people’s preferences of which there are many behavioral profiles such as MBTI, DISC, True Colors, etc.

Businesses all around the world draw their work forces from societies that have their own cultural baggage. However, once on the shop floor or in the office, dealing with production lines and processes, national culture is little more than background noise. Take a look at both the short-term and long-term fix. One-time radical improvements while transforming the company’s culture step-by-step, to the tipping point where staff can be counted on to help out and provide suggestions.

China IS ready for Lean but it will take a long time for business owners to wrap their heads around lean thinking and providing the leadership necessary to drive and embed change.

We at Articulate are experienced in helping companies in China and across Asia Pacific to navigate through profound business transformations, organization changes, process improvements and system implementations. Please do contact us for any questions in regards to this article, or for any inquiries for support by Email to or by telephone on +86 (21) 6339 1312.

Stephen Curtis
Senior Manager | Articulate