How Does Culture Impact Outcomes?

Three things have always stood out when I’ve reflected on the success of a project or change initiative, or the speed at which it advanced. It seems that when these 3 things are present, not only does work advance much quicker, but greater outcomes are the result.

I find it interesting, then to hear when other people have similar observations, not just in work, but also in life.

These 3 things are mindset, alignment, and empowerment.

Lessons from Japan

Not long ago, I attended an event called “Lessons from Japan", hosted by the Lean Practitioners Association of Saskatchewan. Given my involvement within the Lean Project Delivery space, and my passion for continuous learning, I recently joined this non-profit group - their mission of bringing Lean practitioners together to learn from each other really aligns with my psyche!

Anyways, I listened to the evening speakers, Karen LeTourneau and Tyler Cates of POS BioSciences, speak about the lessons they took away from their recent travels to Japan - a part of their Lean Black Belt training program. And what I found most interesting was that their biggest lessons did not come from the tours of the plant floors they saw, but instead from the everyday practices within the Japanese culture.

They highlighted many things as they walked through their experiences, but over and over again, those three aspects that drive greater success popped out. So let’s hear how these appear in culture.

a can-do attitude Drives Continuous Improvement

In Japan, people are empowered from childhood on, to truly believe they can do what they put their minds to.

From teaching, to creating art, to becoming a chef, or building something to be used in our world, those learning something new are shown what to do, and then encouraged to just do it, without doubt.

People are encouraged to keep trying, to take small steps to advance their skills, and many are self-motivated to do things over and over again, making tiny improvements each time. Improvements in the processes they follow, and improvements in their capabilities. They are shown that it is possible for anyone to become a takumi, or expert in their field of craft.

All it takes is mindset that you are capable, then dedication and practice will get you there.

Finding Common Purpose drives Motivation

Japanese are raised to have great respect for others, to always be considerate of others’ needs, and to think of the greater good of society. People are encouraged to act in ways that support everyone, and look for ways to make improvements to lessen unnecessary efforts for others, or put others at risk.

Some very apparent examples were provided where, if there were no overarching common purpose that people believed in, these practices would not exist, nor be practiced by the majority:

In public spaces, one could see many people wearing face masks - and although one might think this was to protect themselves from air pollution or air-borne bacteria, in fact they found the opposite to be true.

In Japan, they found that the people wearing these masks were, in fact, those that were feeling unwell - and they wore them to prevent the spread of any contagion they might be carrying. They did not wish to make anyone else feel ill!

japan train.jpg

Next, on trains and transit, people were very quiet. You see, many people have long commutes and use this time on the train to sleep. So out of respect to those people, others who did not sleep simply kept quietly to themselves.

Lastly, at the entrances of buildings, one might find bags for putting overtop of wet umbrellas - and people actually used them. The reason? - to help prevent making a mess for others to clean up, and to help prevent slips and falls caused by wet floors.

Providing direction & transparency create inclusivity & efficiencies

In a condensed place where so many people live and work, it is imperative for everyone to be able to perform or function in a similar fashion. Picture being the only one in a crowd trying to go the wrong way, or stopping somewhere that no one else is - it can cause disruption, frustration. As such, public facilities are designed with inclusivity in mind, empowering everyone, to help ease flow and create calm, again for the greater good of all.

Signs, directions and instructions are posted in many places you might expect, like roads and train stations, but they are also found in others where you might not expect it either. We might refer to these as “Standard Operating Processes” or SOPs for short.

Now, you might say that SOPs exist everywhere, but an extra feature I can highlight about these SOPs which are not quite as common, and can really make a difference - when descriptions are created using visual images, so as to be understood no matter which language you speak.

This is a video that shows the variety of road signage in Japan, and the different meanings each of the symbols have, in case you ever go there for a visit!


Visuals are used in many places, including on menus, for displays of “fake food” or other things you might like to order, so there can be no confusion.

03 japan how to use a toilet sign bathroom.JPG

And SOPs exist even for things like washing and drying your hands, for using the toilet, and for the correct ways to put on your yukata, or Japanese robe, in places where there are frequent visitors.

Another way that “visibility” is improved, is through sound and texture.


Our speakers talked about how they found braille on handrails going up and down stairwells, as well as other textured markings on stairs, to help guide visually impaired train travellers.

They also showed us pictures of paved walking surfaces, inclusive of raised / ridged paths, and crossings marked with special textures, breaks in pattern, or dots, so that one might find and follow their way along through a sense of feeling.

Loud speakers and distinct sounds are used to announce pending arrivals and departures of various things (including supplies in plants), and different jingles and chimes are used to indicate a road crossing, or the train station you might be at, as well as to help travellers know when they are to start boarding the train and when the doors will close.

From these examples, one might establish that each of these things on their own can make improvements to a larger system, and I wouldn’t disagree. But when all three are combined, there is a much stronger gain.

When everyone has been brought to believe in a common purpose, and they are motivated not only with a can-do attitude, but also empowered with clear direction, and the supports they might need, the culture that results will always drive performance and the pursuit of perfection.

What have you done to establish such a culture in your organization?

About Karen Chovan, Principal of Enviro Integration Strategies, and Shift2Lean

I’m on a mission to alter the way industrial developments and projects are planned, designed and operated - I want to help others identify new options, make better decisions, and generate or recognize value where others see only cost, all in a streamlined and effective method of delivery.

Cover photo credit: on VisualHunt