Culture Change Simplified, Part 4 of 4: Eat Less, Exercise More

In this final installment, we discuss how to change a culture without dynamiting the whole operation. If an analysis of your organization’s culture suggests dynamite is warranted, read no further. Fortunately, the vast majority of organizations can successfully change. Conceptually, the path is easy to understand. Practically, it is not as easy to follow.

Eat Less, Exercise More: what does a weight loss mantra have to do with culture change? More than it may seem on the surface. When confronted with the need to lose weight, we are counseled on one side to increase our physical activity and reduce our caloric intake: eat less, exercise more. But we are also bombarded from the other side with “miracle” weight-loss pills, diets, surgeries, etc. Do we go for the quick fix or for the tried-and-true change of lifestyle?

The lifestyle change achieves results slowly. It’s not fancy, not glamorous, and requires dedication and unfailing effort, but it does achieve the sort of results that can be sustained. And besides, we all know intuitively that before too long studies will show the miracle diet was either ineffective or dangerous (of course, when the miracle diet’s cover is blown, the supermarket magazines will have moved onto a new set of miracle diets).

Culture change can be seen in the same way. There are simple principles (that we will discuss shortly) that if rigorously and consistently applied will move the culture in a positive direction. The changes take time to be established, but once established, they are more easily sustained. Now for some, that is not fast enough, not “miraculous” enough, and—perhaps more to the point—does not allow one individual to take the credit for it. So they seek a book, a slogan, or any other cure that will spare them the real effort necessary for lasting positive change.

Eat less, exercise more. The process will work. How can I be so confident? Because it was the same process that created the culture you presently have!

Where Do I Start?

The raw material for culture change is all around your organization. Remembering in Part 2, we discussed the A-B-C-D progression. A, the first element, represents the actions taking place. Actions are being carried out in your organization continuously, right here and now. What needs to change is the response to those actions.

We must look at each action (or, in many cases, inactions) and classify them as positive (good for the organization’s well-being) or negative (not so good). The response to those actions must be such that the people in the organization recognize they are good (and are rewarded for continuing to do) or bad (and are sanctioned for continuing to do). The actions must be responded to consistently and firmly; there can be no doubt in the actor’s mind about leadership’s position on the action.

As much as possible, the actions related to the process must be given special, focused attention. An action within the process is either good (leads to the creation of salable product or service), bad (inhibits or prevents the creation of salable product or service) or indifferent (has no effect on the actual properties of the product or service). Good actions must be reinforced; bad actions must be analyzed to identify their causes, and those causes must be corrected. Indifferent actions must be systematically eliminated, because they are consuming resources and producing nothing in return.

Through careful, conscientious observation and analysis of actions, choosing and taking appropriate actions in response to those actions, you will establish new patterns of behavior. These will in turn raise expectations and change the culture. Not glamorous, not miraculous, not easy—but effective. What worked to create the present culture will succeed in making a new culture.

Which begs a question: who is responsible for changing an organization’s culture?

  1. Leadership
  2. The Line Workers
  3. A responsibility shared by both A and B

I asked this question many times in courses I presented, and probably 90% of class participants got it wrong.

The answer: A, it is Leadership’s responsibility, simply because they get to determine what is an appropriate response to each action.

Making Culture Change Happen (The Right Way)

When embarking on your culture change adventure, it is important to remember a handful of key points:

  • Do not spend time bashing the former culture, because in so doing you are bashing the people who lived and worked under that culture. They will dig their heels in
  • Do not confer guru status on individuals, whether in-house leaders or consultants, regardless of how much credit they want. The culture change must be accomplished by everyone working together, not by one person directing and dictating a “new reality.”
  • Make the focus of the change effort the processes as much as humanly possible. If you make it about people, you will create factions. Even if individuals or groups are performing poorly, deal with the process aspects, and give the individuals the opportunity to demonstrate their capability with the improved process before making personnel decisions (and, yes, personnel decisions may be necessary for a variety of reasons)
  • Involve as many people as possible in the effort, particularly in dissecting processes to understand why they are producing the results they are producing
  • Do not spend time begging and cajoling oppositional employees to “get with the program.” Remember you will encounter resistance because someone was profiting from the former culture and now their profit is shrinking. If they are performing adequately within the bounds of the process and not impeding the change effort, endure them. If they are doing neither of the above, expedite their removal from the organization
  • Listen, listen and listen more to people at all levels; a problem is best understood when it is viewed from multiple angles
  • Do not announce to anyone that “we are going to change the culture.” Do not introduce yourself as a “change agent,” even if you are one. At the end of the day, you want all members of the organization owning the new culture—they had a part in its coming into existence—as opposed to the new culture being forced upon them
  • Be patient. It takes time; if time is of the essence (i.e., your destiny is close at hand), expedite carrying out each point above. If it is truly a crisis, be honest about it with the employees and make the focus on how together we will work through the crisis—just don’t call it a culture change!

I hope this series was useful to you the reader. Regardless of your position or job duties, you can contribute to a change of culture. If you are able to look at, dissect and analyze a process and discover ways to improve it, you are “change agent material!” Just don’t call yourself that.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section or write me directly at

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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