Monkey See…Monkey do 

Monkey see .. monkey do

By: Ronette Kersting


David Mann describes culture within a work organization to be, “the sum of people’s habits related to how they get their work done.  The culture of a place or organization is a result of what they experience.”  Culture is how the people in an organization operate and behave.  It defines the way people complete tasks, make decisions, and conduct themselves.  This was very well demonstrated in the business/self-help book, Competing for the Future, by Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad (1996). In their book, they talk about an experiment supposedly run in the 1970s with several monkeys. This story provides a vivid demonstration of how culture is built in an organization over time. It also demonstrates how difficult it is to change an embedded culture or create a new one.  Here is a quick summary of the story.


Researchers put several monkeys in a cage that had a ladder in the very center. At the top of the ladder, they hung a banana. Every time any of the monkeys tried to climb the ladder to get the banana, the researchers sprayed all the monkeys with cold water. As you can imagine, soon, none of the monkeys tried to climb the ladder to get the banana anymore.

Then, the researchers changed out one of the monkeys with one that had never been sprayed with cold water. As expected, that monkey tried to climb the ladder to get to the banana. This time, however, the researchers did not have to spray the monkey with cold water; all the other monkeys attacked the new monkey and prevented him from climbing the ladder.

Over time, the researchers replaced each monkey in the cage with monkeys that had never been sprayed with cold water and the same thing happened every time. Finally, none of the monkeys in the cage had ever been sprayed with cold water, but none of them would climb the ladder to get to the banana.

This is how culture is formed…it begins with the actions of a leader and is adopted and carried forward by the employees until the chain of activities is broken.  An organization’s culture is critical, it is the foundation upon which success or failure is built.  An organization’s culture is a result of its management system.  To change it you must change the management system.


Lean management consists of the discipline, daily practices, and tools to maintain a consistent focus on process.  Lean production without Lean management is not sustainable.  The practices of Lean management create process focus.  Here is how it works:

  • Visual controls are a fundamental element. These provide visual cues for abnormal process performance (misses, defects, system failures, abnormalities, etc.) Timely visual updates also provide physical evidence of leaders’ discipline.
  • Daily accountability meetings are essential. The visuals with their process data are reviewed on a daily basis.  Performance gaps are reviewed, and where necessary, action items are identified to determine root cause as well as immediate containment actions needed.
  • Action item follow-ups from the accountability meetings are added to leaders’ standard work to ensure the integrity of the root cause as well as the effectiveness of the countermeasure.


The cycle begins with recording on visual tracking charts occurrences of delays, defects, and interruptions.  This information leads to accountability task assignments for root cause analysis and process improvements.  These process changes/improvements are then incorporated into leader standard work.  These three elements, together, make a closed-loop system that creates both process focus and process improvement. This virtuous circle from Lean management does not just sustain the gains from Lean production but also continuous improvement.  It is an example of the adage: take care of your process and the process will take care of you.

To learn more about Lean Six Sigma, click here.