How to Change a Work Culture
I’ve often heard it said that it takes five to seven years to change a work culture. My experience tells me otherwise. Unfortunately, many, if not most, culture change efforts do take much longer than is necessary because of the approaches that are used in an attempt to change the existing work culture. If you want to change a work culture, and change that culture relatively quickly, you have to fundamentally change the key work systems that created what you have now in the first place.
What do I mean by fundamentally changing your key work systems? Well, to help you gain a better perspective of what I am talking about, here is a list of ten key things that you can do right now. I have personally seen the impact of making these changes, I and I am confident that if you give at least a few of them a try, you too will begin see a noticeable difference in a short amount of time.
Most importantly, keep this in mind. You will not be able to sustain a lean six sigma, operational excellence, or process excellence pursuit without making a culture change (unless you start from scratch and design your systems to support such efforts from the start). Also, you cannot change a culture simply by buying new tools, sending people to training, or asking them to change. If you want to change your work culture, you have to change the work systems that created that culture in the first place, and have been shaping it every day since that point in time.
Tip #1 – Change Your Hiring Process
Your work culture is defined by the beliefs and work practices that you and your employees have. If your current hiring process is not designed to help you attract, identify, and retain people who think and behave in a manner that is consistent with the culture you desire, you are only moving further away from your culture change goals with each hiring decision that is made. Who is involved in your hiring process? What types of questions do they ask? What approaches do you use to make your final selections? What sources do you use to find people? How do you know if you are hiring people that will support and promote the work culture that you desire?
Tip #2 – Measure Leadership Behavior Consistency
Most organizations measure leadership effectiveness in a very general and vague manner, and very few measure leadership behavior consistency. Leaders should be primarily measured by the personal contributions they make, not merely by the results that their people obtain. More importantly, you should be measuring the degree to which EACH leader consistently models the types of behaviors needed to support your desired culture. For example, it is one thing to say that you want your leaders to empower their people and value their input, and quite another thing to actually measure the degree to which your leaders do this day in and day out, as perceived by their people. Measure leadership behavior consistency, take action to help your leaders improve their scores, and make reassign those people who aren’t able to meet these expectations after a year or so – don’t allow certain leaders to continue behaving badly.
Tip #3 – Use Balanced Scorecards on All Processes
Most organizations that use balanced scorecards only use them at the organizational level – very few ensure that a balanced set of performance measures have been established for each key process. Also, they fail to actually use these scorecards to effectively review and improve performance. They might create the scorecard, but when they review performance against it, they continue to focus more on throughput, pieces made, or sales volume to a much greater degree than the other measures on the cards. High performance organizations require ALL process owners (managers, supervisors, etc.) to consistently improve the trends for all of their key measures, not just those that have been culturally popular to focus on in the past..
Tip #4 – Improve Your Communication Methods and Systems
The prevailing communication system in most organizations is infrequent and one way in nature. In other words, people don’t get a lot of information or feedback about how they are doing or how the organization is performing, and when they do, this information is more often than not negative. The net results of this cultural commonality is that most employees see the existing meetings, newsletters, and bulletin board postings as a waste of time, whether you are aware of this or not. I’ve even seen organizations do more damage than good in their attempts to keep people informed because of the type of information that was shared (and not shared) and how they chose to share it. Coordinate the different group events that you have, measure event effectiveness, and take action to make improvements where they are needed.
Tip #5 – Change Your Compensation System
I don’t believe money is as much of a motivator as it is a demotivator. If your people perceive that your existing compensation system is not fair, it will affect their attitudes, and in turn, their behaviors. Your existing compensation system affects the degree to which your people bring up problems to their supervisors, assist with putting improvements in place, provide excellent customer service, and detect product or service defects, among other things. People are consistently evaluating what they, and others, are getting in terms of wages, benefits, and work environment attributes against the daily efforts they are making. In many cases, their perceptions are exaggerated. In other cases, their perceptions of inconsistency and inequity are justified. By moving towards a more equitable compensation system that rewards people for supporting the desired work culture, a major roadblock in your culture change effort can be removed.
Tip #6 – Expect Different Things from All of Your Leaders
Are all of your leaders skilled at using process improvement tools? To what degree do each of your meeting leaders effectively facilitate and manage the group dynamics of their teams? How many of your leaders can use spreadsheets, word processing software, and web page development tools in an effective manner? Do you even think that these skills should be required of people in leadership roles? All of your leaders – not just the people at the top – play the most significant role in shaping your work culture. If you want to change your work culture to a great degree in a short amount of time, you need change how all of your leaders spend their time and behave each day on the job. Most organizations ask, or tell, their leaders that they need to change, but few take the necessary actions to ensure that new skills are learned and practiced regularly, or that desired behaviors are developed and displayed in the workplace each day. What do you expect of your leaders, and how do you measure the degree to which these expectations are being consistently met? How will you change each leadership job description, performance review approach, and compensation practice to reinforce the work practices that are needed for culture change to occur?
Tip #7 – Measure Internal Customer Satisfaction
Some organizations don’t measure and trend internal customer satisfaction at all, and those that do tend to do it only once a year at best. The high performance organizations however regularly trend and review their performance in the areas of employee retention, complaint levels, and internal satisfaction (perception survey) scores. If you want to change your existing work culture, you have to assess the degree to which your people feel that the existing work systems are supporting such a change, and you also need a gauge of where your work culture currently is – what your people think and believe about the organization. Review these measures monthly, identify system changes (such as those mentioned in this list) to affect those scores, and take action to put the highest priority system changes in place. Also, don’t forget to identify and remedy the sources of internal customer dissatisfaction.
Tip #8 – Eliminate Non-Value Added Process Activities
The use of lean tools and concepts on the front lines of an organization is very popular right now, but few organizational leaders have turned these tools on themselves. For example, do you measure and trend meeting effectiveness? Have you taken steps to make your decision making processes leaner? Does each process owner in your organization have a plan for reducing the degree to which non-value added activities exist in those key processes that they are personally responsible for? Hypocrisy will hold back a high performance work culture as much as anything, and you can’t begin moving your culture forward if there are still systems in place that are holding it back. Waste needs to be taken out of all key work processes, not just those that are performed by hourly people. Management system waste will kill a culture change effort.
Tip #9 – Use Technology as an Improvement Catalyst
Most organizations are attempting to utilize new technologies, but few are achieving the degree of success they could as they do so. The primary challenge in realizing this potential lies in the fact that most members of upper management are ‘before computers’ people. They began their work career before computers were in the mainstream, and in turn, their perspective of the power of a digital workplace are short sighted. They may try to use e-mail, intranets, and video conferencing to help the organization, but they are in most cases only scratching the surface when it comes to effectively using these tools. Instead of reaching more people with a more powerful message, and using technology to also collect more information from more customers in a low cost manner, they are instead using it to waste more time in ineffective meetings, making decisions, typing slowly, generating redundant reports, and sending counterproductive feedback to people.
Tip #10 – Stop Doing Things That Run Counter to Your Desired Culture
Each day, your existing culture is either moving closer to, or further away from, the type of culture that you want it to be. Cultures are a system in themselves – they have momentum, and they are either spinning in a negative or positive direction. Desired, or undesired, behaviors and work practices are being reinforced on a daily basis by the work systems you have in place right now. Until you recognize this, you won’t be motivated to identify and change those systems that are reinforcing those things that you don’t really want to reinforce. In the above nine tips, I have given you some examples of ineffective work systems. I hope that you will take the time to reflect on the degree to which similar examples might be in place in your organization. More importantly, should you find such systems in place, I hope that you will take the time to try to fix them so that they reinforce what you would like them to, instead of what you don’t want them to.
How Value Added are Your Culture Change Efforts?
I wrote my book on developing a high performance work culture to help companies stop wasting time and money trying to change their cultures in unproductive ways. Most organizations try to change their work cultures by hiring consultants, sending people to training sessions, asking their leaders to manage differently, and forming teams that may only last a year or two. In some cases, these approaches might have some impact, but it will usually take a lot longer than it should. Today’s high performance organizations have used similar approaches to develop and sustain the desired work culture. I describe many of these approaches in the book, but I also give a lot of them away for free here on this website.
If you want different results (a new and improved work culture), you have to change the systems that created, and are currently reinforcing, that culture in the first place. Significant emotional events, such as the loss of a major customer, an acquisition, or the threat of a facility closure, can also change a culture, but rarely do you want to go through such an experience in order to make this happen. You are better off learning from the organizations that are already doing it the right, and most cost effective, way. If you have any questions about changing your work culture, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. All such an e-mail will cost you is a little of your time. Keep improving!
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