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Don’t Change the Culture, Change the Cultural Inputs

By Steve Kane Updated on August 25th, 2021

Company culture, loosely defined, is a set of shared beliefs, values, purpose, practices, behaviors, artifacts, language, goals, and attitudes within an organization. Changing culture continues to be a hot topic in the workplace. While there might be a strong desire to make quick changes, one could be well served by starting with deep reflection and contemplation instead of jumping to countermeasures.

Culture is Big and Vague

Defining culture in the abstract isn’t the same as defining the culture of a given organization. Many people have a desire to change company culture without really understanding what the culture is, why it is, or what it should become. There’s an understanding, however, that some aspect of the culture is undesirable. Your organization’s culture is big, complex, and vague, making it difficult to articulate. It’s also subjective. It’s a perception rather than an absolute truth.

The fact that culture is a perception suggests that it is also a lagging indicator. Changing lagging indicators is a bit like driving a car by focusing on what appears in the rearview mirror. This doesn’t mean culture can’t or shouldn’t change. The question is how do we go about it?

Be Specific

Changing company culture is a daunting task because it’s big and vague. Clear and specific actions may not be easily identifiable. As with any improvement or problem-solving effort, it’s important to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions or countermeasures. This is too important to get wrong. Consider the eight-step Practical Problem Solving method to better understand the situation and get the desired results.

Trust the Process

The eight steps of the Practical Problem Solving method are:

  1. Clarify the problem
  2. Break down the problem
  3. Set a target
  4. Analyze root causes
  5. Develop countermeasures
  6. See countermeasures through
  7. Evaluate the process and results
  8. Standardize success and learn from failures

Apply the Eight Steps to Counter Undesireable Cultural Inputs

Step 1. Start by clearly understanding the undesired aspects or effects of the culture and then find a way to measure them. This can be done through a variety of metrics. SQDC, safety, turnover, overtime, and morale assessments are just a few. You know how to stand in the circle to observe waste. Consider standing in the circle to observe cultural inputs.

Step 2. Break down the big, vague cultural issue into smaller problems. Think about your big, vague culture as the output and shared beliefs, values, behaviors, practices, etc. as process inputs. Keep breaking problematic inputs down until they become actionable.

Step 3. Set a target without attempting to boil the ocean. Select something that is small and achieveable. Put all other potential targets in a parking lot for now. Focus on improving only one part of the culture at a time. Keep in mind the possibility that the upcoming root cause analysis will likely reveal several root causes that will need to be countered.

Step 4. Analyze root causes. A fishbone diagram could be very useful here, although other information gathering techniques could prove valuable as well. These could be techniques as simple as interviews and observation.  Remember, you’re not looking for the root cause. You’re looking for root causes–and there might be many.

Step 5. Develop countermeasures to eliminate the root causes of the cultural problem with your team. Prioritize the countermeasures, then start at the top of your list and work through each item.

Step 6. See your countermeasures through by addressing them one at a time. Think about small, rapid PDCA cycles. While PDCA cycle should be rapid, you’ll want to avoid rushing to the next countermeasure on the list. Be certain each countermeasure is effective before moving on.

Step 7. Evaluate the process and the results to confirm you’ve achieved the desired cultural input. Again, PDCA until you get the results you’re looking for.

Step 8. Standardize success and learn from failures. Changing culture often involves changing what people think so that they will then change what they do (change behaviors). Sometimes training can be enough to change what people think. Other times a deeper understanding of purpose is needed. Repeated messaging might be required. Think about this in terms of consumer advertising. The largest, most popular brands in the world still advertise despite the fact that their target demographic already knows the brand very well. This is because these companies know that when their messaging stops their brand loses relevance in the market. The same is true in the workplace. When we stop talking about (acknowledging) what we value as an organization, our values can lose relevance or attention over time.

Now that you’ve reached your desired target, go back to step 3 and select a new one. Remember that this is a lifelong journey rather than a project. Trust the process and never give up.





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