Andon Culture

The andon is a light (and the button or cord that activates it) in a production area. An employee activates the light, switching from green to yellow or red, when there is a problem. The word is Japanese and is most famously associated with the Toyota Production System and Taiichi Ohno.

The andon may also be one of the most important metaphors in management.

Many leaders fall into the trap of treating Lean and Agile as toolkits, recipes or methodologies. This mechanistic, techno-centric approach is the root cause of the failure of most Lean and Agile implementations. Lean and Agile are value systems – ways of thinking about organizing humans. They come with toolkits, but they are not those toolkits.

A COO recently shared with me that their inventory management was slipping. She was struggling to get the managers responsible to stay on top of the kanban process they had committed to.

As well as the deteriorating inventory management, the other thing that bothered the COO was that most of what she discovered, she had to discover on her own. If she hadn’t asked, the variances would have gone on uncorrected much longer. When she did ask, the managers claimed they were using the system, but couldn’t explain the variances.

Then she said the thing that changed our conversation.

“I feel like our culture of quality is slipping.”

Many other leaders would have either blamed their managers or focused hard on the technical execution of their kanban system, doubling down on the technicalities of the methodology. Instead, she put her finger where it belongs for Lean and Agile practitioners: on the culture.

We agreed this was an ‘andon failure’. Because the andon is an organizational metaphor, not just a tool.

Andon Culture

It is what the andon requires from a culture, that makes it such a powerful metaphor.

A democracy of experts

One of the most challenging features of implementing the effective use of the andon, is the requirement that front line employees be empowered to stop the show. No escalation policies; no chain-of-command requirements; just a simple directive: See a problem? Push the button. Stop the line.

The degree of change to management thinking this requires in most organizations, to say nothing of the trust and training, is radical and transformative. It is a reversal of the very concept of ‘manager as expert‘ as understood by every MBA since the days of Alfred Sloan. The front line employee is the expert. In Lean and Agile organizations, the manager is a facilitator and a coach in problem-solving.

Psychological safety

On the employee side, the confidence to call out mistakes and failures with complete candor and confidence, requires a level of psychological safety that does not yet exist in most organizations.

The situation becomes even more challenging if the employee believes they are personally responsible for error or failure. The only way to support ‘self-reporting’ is if the the organization’s ‘failure management’ responses are scrubbed clean of any hit of blame. All failures must be treated as opportunities for improvement of a process, not primarily for the correction of the employee.

We all make mistakes. But treating a mistake as the failure of the individual should always be the last resort. In most organizations it continues to be the first stop; the automatic assumption.

Something went wrong? Someone screwed up.

This is one area W. E. Deming was so adamant about and underscored the reciprocal thought relationship he had with the Japanese as the Toyota Production System, and subsequently Lean, evolved. Deming was insistent that nearly all failures in quality could be traced back to failures in process and were not ultimately the ‘fault’ of a person.

Operational transparency

Operational transparency refers to two things: practices like ‘open book management’ and ‘functional’ transparency. Functional transparency is complete clarity around roles, responsibilities, and accountability. That second dimension is well-captured using a tool called a RACI table (describing who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed).

Organizational transparency is critical for an andon culture because it illuminates the why and the how of decisions. Knowing where to put our focus, why a particular standard matters, and the organizational impact of our choices to hide or reveal failures, are all required to pull the andon cord with confidence.

A lot of management writing focuses on what to do at the moment a mistake or failure occurs: the mechanisms for deploying problem-solving counter-measures. Our real focus should be the context (from cultural and systems perspectives) in which the failure occurred. If we don’t have a culture of psychological safety, and a system with robust feedback mechanisms, continuous improvement is fatally impaired.

About the Author

Clemens Rettich

I am an organizational consultant and educator with over 20 years of experience in supporting the improvement of organizations and organizational management across North America. I work at the intersection of people, systems, and change with a human-culture-first mindset that values joy, innovation, and collaboration. As a teaching professor at the University of Victoria's Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, I teach in the areas of leadership and organizational behaviour. In my work I explore the nature of the human organization in a post-colonial, post-technocratic society. I hold an MBA (Leadership and Organizations), and an undergraduate degree in music (Musicology, Performance). My areas of practice include management and leadership, organizational behaviour, process improvement, organizational change, and talent development and training.
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