Cultural Change - What is it?

The culture of an organization is about the people who work for it, how they behave in order to achieve their business goals and satisfy customers.

We often hear talk of changing the culture of an organization but what does that mean? What exactly is the culture of an organization?

It's really quite simple. The culture of an organization is about the people who work for it, how they behave in order to achieve their business goals and satisfy customers. The culture of an organization shows itself in how people communicate, how they make decisions, how they treat each other and how they treat their customers and suppliers. It can be measured in how quickly people are able to identify a problem or an opportunity and then respond to it and deliver a successful outcome. In other words it affects the organizations ability to change in order to meet the needs of their customers. Talking to customers is crucial to developing a culture that can respond to change.

A friend of mine told me the following story that is reportedly true.

A sweet grandmother telephoned St. Joseph's Hospital. She timidly asked, "Is it possible to speak to someone who can tell me how a patient is doing?" The operator said, "I'll be glad to help, dear. What's the name and room number?" The grandmother in her weak, tremulous voice said, "Norma Findlay Room 302." The operator replied, "Let me place you on hold while I check with her Nurse. After a few minutes, the operator returned to the phone and said, "Oh, I have good news. Her nurse just told me that Norma is doing very well. Her blood pressure is fine, her blood work just came back as normal and her physician, Dr. Cohen, has scheduled her to be discharged on Tuesday." The grandmother said, "Thank you. That's wonderful! I was so worried! God bless you for the good news." The operator replied, "You're more than welcome. Is Norma your daughter?" The grandmother said, "No, I'm Norma Findlay in 302. No one tells me s#!t."

Whether it's true or not it's funny and it makes the point that we should never miss an opportunity to talk to our customers. Even handling a complaint is an opportunity to talk with the customer and show them that you care and that you want to do a good job for them. Remember that customers tell four times as many people the bad news than they tell the good news. Listening to our customers gives us a head start over competitors that focus on their products. When the market shifts the product focused company struggles to change and meet the new expectations of the customer.

Organizations that struggle with change basically have a problem with culture. In these organizations negativity, fear and internal politics are easily identified and these elements conspire to strangle change initiatives and improvement projects.

I remember working with a newspaper publisher in the UK who had many cultural issues. When mistakes in advertisements were made the advertising sales department blamed the art department and the art department blamed the sales department. While they continued to blame each other the quality of their work did not improve and mistakes continued to happen and customers were upset. Additionally there was little or no cooperation between the editorial department and the advertising department. Opportunities were lost as journalists wrote articles focusing on a variety of issues that could have had advertising opportunity linked to them if only they had given advertising sales a heads up. Lost revenues, lost tempers and lost customers as a culture of blame and internal politics conspired to stifle innovation, miss opportunities and build resistance to change.

The culture of an organization directly affects the health of the organization. It affects the agility and speed at which it can respond to change. The role of leadership therefore should really be to develop a healthy culture in order to shape a healthy future for the organization, a culture where people work in association with one another, not in conflict, a culture that involves people and respects their contribution. Unfortunately many organizations are still managed by leaders who craft solutions to problems in the dark of night and then impose their solutions on the workforce. These leaders feel that their role is to develop solutions to problems and then show people how to implement these solutions. Is it any wonder that they meet with resistance to change when the ownership of the solution is resting with the leader and not resting with the people charged with implementing it, the workforce?

I recall a meeting in the nineties with the Managing Director of a very large chain of copy and print shops in the UK. They were the first big chain in the copy shop business in the UK and their franchise sales grew very rapidly. After explaining my views on leadership and the importance of involving others he told me that it would never work in his company "I make the decisions and then I tell them what to do and if they don't do it they're in big trouble". Needless to say as competition became fierce they struggled to retain their number one position and his management team bought him out. My very first boss from my days at Xerox became a director of the copy shop company and as the culture shifted towards involvement they halted the decline and remain a major player in the market.

The involvement of others can also be referred to as "Engaging the Workforce" and the health of the organization is directly affected by how engaged the workforce is.

How healthy is your organization? Who makes decisions? Who's involved? Who implements? Who is talking to the customer? The answers to these simple questions are the difference between a culture that embraces change with enthusiasm and a culture that resists it.

While Lean and Six Sigma are excellent tools for process improvement they are weak culture changing initiatives. They focus on the technical side of process improvement and they forget about the people and how these changes will affect them. I listened to a manager from Toyota speaking at the Lean Summit in Tulsa Oklahoma. He said that people visit the Toyota plant and comment that they use the same improvement tools in their companies that Toyota are using but "Why is it that Toyota's results are so much better than ours"? He went on to say that what they don't see as they walk around the plant, is the culture of the organization. They see the flow charts and the Ishikawa Fishbone diagrams and all the statistical process control charts but what they can't see is the attitude of the workforce. Dr Jeffrey Liker, author of the Toyota Way once told me over dinner that Toyota successfully changed their culture but it took them 10 years to do so and they couldn't really tell you how they did it. Leadership somehow forced it to happen.

Changing the culture of the organization shouldn't take 10 years, so how do we do it more quickly?

Having identified a set of objectives to be achieved, we need to focus on how people behave, how they communicate and how they treat each other and their customers in order to achieve those objectives. We need to develop a listening and involving style of leadership, a style that encourages input from the workforce. One of my core beliefs is that the best consultants any organization can have already work for it. By encouraging leaders to ask questions and listen to the workforce you begin to develop a "Pull Style" of leadership a style that taps into the expertise that already exists within the organization and begins to unleash the change potential of the workforce.

This approach can work on its own or alongside other existing initiatives like Lean and Six Sigma, working in association with one another, not in conflict. Rather than displacing or disrupting other initiatives you could describe it as like adding a supercharger to the process improvement engine.

It's obviously not that simple or Toyota would have not taken ten years to change their culture. Well actually it may not be that simple but neither is it really all that difficult. By taking a structured approach to developing a Pull Style of leadership you can start to see a significant change in people's attitudes and behavior in as little as 6 to 12 weeks.

Measurable Management® provides such a structured approach and even if you don't go down the route of implementing a Measurable Management® program in your organization, this book will provide you with awareness of some of the things that you can do to bring about cultural change within your organization.