Culture Change Simplified–Part 2 of 4: Culture as Easy as A-B-C-D

Imagine yourself as a CEO (no, don’t visualize the corporate office, corporate jet or large paycheck). You come into an organization on your white horse (or white Mercedes) and declare that “we need to change the culture. We will become such-and-such, and banish complacency (a famous Motorola tenet), and remake ourselves!”

Now imagine you have been a worker at that same organization for 20 years. What sounds like inspiring oratory in the CEO’s mind was really a slap in your face. Because you are part of that culture, the CEO is essentially declaring you to be part of the problem. (And don’t for a moment believe line workers receive the message any other way.)

To deconstruct the culture, those in charge of “culture change” must understand how the culture came into being in the first place. And the leaders must recognize these two truths:

1. The culture did not come into being overnight, and any attempt to change it overnight is doomed to fail. The same method that created the culture must–believe it or not–be used to change the culture.

2. Regardless of the current state of the culture, someone in the organizatin is profiting from the culture as it is. If no one were profiting from the culture, the culture would change on its own inertia. So when the culture begins to change, someone’s profit is going to be impacted, and it is from those people you will encounter resistance. That is why culture change inevitably leads to friction if it gets in motion at all.

So where did the culture come from? It all started with:

A —  Actions

In an organization, hundreds if not thousands of actions are taking place daily. Some (we hope most) of these actions are beneficial. Some may have no effect, while others may be detrimental to the organization’s success. The more bad actions, of course, the poorer the organization’s performance.

What is crucial to the organization is how the actions are handled. Another way to put it is: what was the response to the action as perceived by the actor, and did the action turn out profitable for the actor?

Here is an example: a worker shows up late Monday morning. We would consider that a detrimental action. If the issue is dealt with promptly and correctly (tardies will not be tolerated, for example), the worker soon learns that there is no profit in being late and it could lead to significant loss. If the issue was ignored, the worker realized no negative effects, and perhaps profited by being able to sleep in a little later. This worker may find him/herself conditioned to show up late.

An other example: a worker works late hours on Friday to ensure a critical shipment makes it out of the warehouse. This we would consider a good action. Any good leader would recognize immediate, positive feedback will benefit the worker. But what if the effort is met by the leader with a shrug that says, “you get paid for the overtime, don’t come to me looking for warm fuzzies.” How likely is that worker going to put the weekend on hold the next time?

Actions are all around us, but what is critical is how the action is responded to. The responses will inevitably lead to:

B — Behaviors

If coming in late is never dealt with, pretty soon the workers will regularly realize the profit of some extra sleep. In other words, coming in late has become an accepted manner of behavior. If coming in late is dealt with consistently each and every time, showing up on time will become the accepted behavior. Repetition reinforces behavior. Behaviors become habit. On some level, “it’s okay.”

Over time, as these behaviors become entrenched, the organization reaches a tipping point where the accepted mode of behavior is now the expected mode of behavior. And at that point, the behavior is an element of the organization’s

C — Culture

The transition from accepted behavior to expected behavior may be subtle, but it is critical because, if a negative behavior becomes engrained in the culture, there is an ugly underside.

I’ll give you an example from my past. Several years ago, a gentleman named Bobby came to work in a production department. Bobby was a go-getter, fast learner and before long was running circles around the rest of the crew in terms of efficiency. Did the other workers appreciate Bobby’s efforts, even if it meant less effort they had to put out.

I got my answer several months later. Another gentleman, Randy (whom I will point out was an ex-Marine; if he were reading this he’d want you to know that) came into the same department and soon was doing high-quality, efficient work. The response of the other workers? “Oh, he’s another Bobby.” And it was not a compliment.

In this environment, a culture of low effort had taken hold, and woe to the worker who’d dare demonstrate a strong work ethic. Such an attitude–culture–will ultimately have a norming effect, where the quality and efficiency of the good workers’ performance will erode.

What is critical to understand in any organization is that the culture will certainly, inevitably dictate the organization’s

D — Destiny

Good or bad, the culture within the organization will manifest itself in the organization’s performance, which in turn will be reflected in the customers’ perceptions of the organization. If you project 3-5 years into your organization’s future should it run in the same manner as today, and don’t like where it will end up, you have no choice but to get to work immediately and change the culture!

In part 3, we will discuss how that happens.




About Tim James "Mr. Procedure"

A communicator; all-purpose capability in writing, designing and presenting training for all facets of organizational function. While my focus has been manufacturing, my training/development experience includes supervisory and lead person development, audit processes, continuous improvement and Lean, and Quality Management System implementation.
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