It seems most managers desire culture change. People lack discipline, focus, commitment to business objectives, teamwork, creativity and more. Culture change will solve these problems and lead to a committed, engaged workforce collectively working toward the company goals. Every new program to improve the enterprise promises culture change through assessments, off-sites, training programs, newsletters, and stricter accountability. After decades of studying and participating in culture change programs I can honestly say these programs are usually grossly misguided.
Culture is the beliefs, values, and behaviors that a group of people have in common. Each person has their own ways, but when a group of people working toward a common goal have some shared ways we call it culture. The deepest level of culture is shared assumptions that seem obvious to everyone; like the importance of safety first for companies with a deep culture of safety. Culture “emerges.” It does not get “implemented.” We can consciously guide the emergence through very consistent messages and actions from leaders over time. An intelligent leader, when entering a new organization or new department (that is not in total crisis), will take time to deeply understand the current culture, develop a future vision, and then nudge it in that direction.
When Marty Bryant left Toyota to head operations for an automotive supplier (see The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership) he experienced culture shock. They were lacking even basic discipline in coming to meetings on time and prepared. The supplier seemed to love technology, while Toyota was very cautious about new technology. For example, the supplier had put many metrics in a central database. Marty was used to boards of physically posted data owned by work groups with group leaders holding group problem solving meetings to close gaps between planned and actual targets. Rather than buck the culture and order everyone to put all metrics on boards, he bought nice plasma screens with access to the database for each work group, but with a catch. They must every day look at the computer screen and pick the three biggest problems they saw in the data, write them on a white board he provided, and then each day mark them green (on track to solve), yellow (behind plan), or red (we are stalled). He also promised to come by every day to check the white boards and ask them some questions. The metrics rapidly began to trend upwards to levels the plant had not experienced. The culture was changing without off-sites, visioning sessions, or culture training.
Marty’s approach provides a window onto effective culture change. First, understand the culture deeply and compare it to the desired future state. Second, identify your business needs. Third, lead changes to meet your business needs while subtly driving small steps toward your vision. Fourth, be there daily with the people to coach them. Successful culture change will not happen overnight, but effective leaders over time will encourage enough small change that lead to major positive and sustainable improvements.
Dr. Jeffrey Liker is professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan and author of The Toyota Way. He leads Liker Lean Advisors, LLC and his latest book (with Gary Convis) is The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership.