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IT Agility Step 1: Create an IT Agility Culture

~ Authored by Mindy Lenderink & Joe Knape

At the beginning of IT Agility success is learning to “think Lean” and creating a culture where Lean thinking becomes the norm.

Freeway interconnecting cities to each other.

A key event in Japanese history spawned what we refer to as Lean thinking today. The catalyst was the end of World War II when restrictions on car production were lifted in Japan. The Toyota Production System (TPS) was born when Toyota recognized that American automobile manufacturers had progressed beyond them, and they wanted to catch up.

There was no way Toyota could gain ground if they adopted America’s production model so they set out to define a better way. This is a prime example of how necessity is the mother of invention. This improvement has shaped the success of Japanese companies like Toyota, Fuji, and Sony for years, and the principles and practices of TPS are foundational to what we know as Lean today. 

Toyota Production System (TPS) Principles

  • Continuous Improvement. The primary role for every employee is to always look for ways to reduce waste and maximize value. As each employee thinks about the way work gets done, they are to seek the source of problems so the best decisions become obvious.

  • Respect for People. Respect for others is foundational to the TPS system. Employees work together to understand their differences and build mutual trust. Proper respect in a team environment increases performance, both for the individual and for the team.

  • Long-Term Philosophy. A shared mission is important. It draws everyone together with a common purpose and creates lasting success. Also, each employee is responsible for their personal conduct and growth, which fuels their long-term success.

  • The Right Process Will Produce the Right Result. There are several facets of this principle. (1) Make sure processes help create continuous flow. (2) Only produce what is required to meet current needs. (3) Keep the flow of progress constant with realistic expectations. (4) Stop and fix problems immediately. (5) Keep improving processes until they are stable and repeatable.

  • Add Value to the Organization by Developing People. Identify people in your organization who embrace TPS principles. Grow them into leaders, who will reinforce the culture continuously.

  • Continuously Solve Root Problems to Drive Organization Learning. The root cause of a problem is easier to see when you go and see what is happening for yourself. Take the time to get input from everyone who has knowledge about a problem so you make the right decision, but when a decision is made, implement it right away.

Applying TPS principles creates a culture of learning. Critical thinking, respect, collaboration, and continuous improvement became fundamental to Toyota’s culture, allowing them to close the gap between Toyota and American manufacturers.

TPS to Lean – the Western Interpretation

Lessons the Western world learned from TPS are present in the Lean methodology that began to gain visibility in the 1990s. These lessons are best expressed as “Lean thinking.”

In 2001, Toyota articulated two key management principles – Continuous Improvement and Respect for People – which became known as the twin pillars. This restatement of TPS was the result of Toyota’s attempt to apply TPS in the Western culture. In Toyota’s Western operations, they were experiencing similar difficulties as other Western organizations in getting value from TPS, and they recognized the root cause.

The Japanese and Western cultures approach problem-solving in different ways. While the Japanese exercise patience and invest in teaching their employees about the need for change and why it is important, the West tends to take shortcuts on their way to success, resulting in little focus on teaching, change management, or the culture of an organization.

Creating twin pillars where Respect for People has an equal, visible seat at the table alongside Continuous Improvement, revealed the gap for Toyota. Respect is woven into the fabric of Japanese culture. While respect is valued in some Western organizations, it is not emphasized like it is in successful companies in Japan.

The twin pillars helped Toyota solve their Western culture problem, but the West did not catch on. Respect for people continues to be the mostly-forgotten pillar on our Western road to IT Agility today.

The Missing Link

In the early days of TPS, there were many changes in the way things were done – all of them focused on producing a quality product more rapidly through minimizing waste and maximizing value. What made the Japanese successful is that they understood the value of each Toyota employee in creating the TPS culture. Their culture had to change, and the only way to shift the culture was to start with the employees on the line.

Toyota chose to invest time teaching employees how to think differently about their work. Employees learned to think critically and identify waste in processes they used every day. When opportunities to improve became clear, Toyota acted to remove the waste – and they did this over and over again. They took the value of continuous improvement and multiplied it by every member of the Toyota team.

Choosing the Right Differentiator

It is time for the Western world to recognize that the biggest value proposition in their organization is people. Early in the 21stcentury, the impact of technological advances began to decline. The leap from one version to the next lost the differentiation factor that had been key to staying ahead of the competition.

While technology continues to advance at a steady pace, the differentiation for organizations now depends on an investment in a culture of respect for people. When a culture values each individual and encourages them to think and explore the possibilities, the innovation potential is multiplied by every member in the organization.

Respect for people is where you find ideas to differentiate your business. Individuals who are valued and respected are free to let their minds explore the possibilities. Employees can no longer be a means to an end if you want to excel in your industry.

Changing the Culture

In the West, most people claim to respect others, but there is a difference between casual respect and intentional respect. Intentional respect comes from a choice to show that we value another person by the respectful way we interact with them. This emanates from a culture that sees inherent value in each person and chooses to set each person free to do their best work.

Culture in any organization is organic. It is defined by the daily interactions and dynamics between people. Therefore, to change a culture, you must change the way people behave and interact. Change won’t happen overnight, but consistency will win the day. The key is in identifying the negative patterns to eliminate so you can begin a cycle of continuous improvement. 

Looking at daily routines through a systems theory filter can help you identify patterns of behavior that do not promote a learning culture. After you identify a negative pattern, the next step is to identify and give visibility to the roles of the people involved in the pattern.

It is likely that the people involved in a negative pattern do not recognize the impact of their behavior. A key to long-term success is helping each person understand their role and the unintended negative consequences that result from the role they play.

For example, micromanagers do not allow others to exercise their creativity because they control every situation. Enablers might not want to give instructive feedback when it is needed because they don't want to upset anyone – so they ignore the behavior and look the other way. Whatever the role, a connection must be made between the behavior and the consequence before you can begin to improve.

Changing a culture is hard work. It takes time, consistency, a commitment to invest, and a choice to recognize the long-term benefit of a performant and competitive workforce that differentiates your product or service for years to come. Get started today by touching base with one of our IT Agility advisors at

Mindy Lenderink, PMP, PMI-ACP, CSM, @mindylenderink on twitter, is a consultant in infoedge's information Technology Excellence practice and has over 15 years of experience helping organizations transform. While her expertise and interests are wide ranging, she finds herself drawn to human capital management, coaching, and the successful application of Agile principles.

Joe Knape, @joeknape on twitter, is a Director at infoedge. With over 20 years of experience in information technology, coaching, and mentoring, Joe recognizes that change is hard. He has a passion for improving his clients’ condition by helping them uncover what changes create the biggest impact and to do more with less by driving out waste and increasing efficiency with their IT investments. Joe specializes in Lean, Lean IT, Agile, DevOps, and beyond.


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