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Command-and-Control Management Style delivers the wrong message

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My son, Ben, was written up at work for calling off so he could evacuate Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma’s landfall.  You can read about it in The Washington Post.  Seriously.

Irma – a category 5 storm almost as large as the entire peninsula. Ben is a college freshman living on his own for the first time.  He has a part-time job as a food delivery driver. He works hard, cares about his job, and appreciates being paid. And he cares about his personal safety almost as much as I do.

As the storm approached, I arranged lodging for Ben in Georgia and out the reach of the worst part of the storm.  He was concerned about getting in trouble at work….But who expects food delivery during a hurricane??? At my urging, he called his manager to tell him he was evacuating.

While Ben was away, his manager sent a group text to the delivery drivers stating that while gas was scarce in the area, not being able to find gas was not a reason to call off. There’s brute force – then there’s this. What did his manager expect? Hot and fresh delivery falls apart when the mode of travel is heel-toe express!

When Ben returned to work a few days later, he received a warm “welcome back” write-up and was informed that future time-off requests would be denied.

By all accounts, the situation was infuriating.  I wanted to direct my wrath at the manager, but my Deming brain knows the source of the behavior likely comes from something much more powerful – the corporate belief system.

Let’s assume this manager is passionate about helping people get food – that is a powerful vision. As laudable as that might be, his vision might become misguided when put in the context of looming natural disaster. One could argue that the manager’s highest priority be his responsibility to the staff and their safety.  At that point, it would be up to each employee to decide whether to evacuate or stay.  Naturally some would stay and work, guided by intrinsic motivation; others would listen to their mothers and get out of harm’s way.

So I wondered…why would the manager feel okay about risking the safety of his employees to make a few extra bucks?

I’ll likely never know the answer, but I suspect something in the corporate system drives this behavior – a carrot, such as a bonus plan; or a stick, such as a a penalty for closing early?

Writing up employees under such circumstances demonstrates how beliefs can extend to a ridiculous extreme. Command-and-control tactics strip integrity and dignity out of work – workers are left with drudgery.  The manager’s attempt to “punctuate” corporate’s threat with the “no gas is no excuse” line illustrates the the misguided management belief that people can be told what to do – and they will get it done – because they know management expects results no matter what.  When the tank is empty and the gas station is closed – brute force won’t make the car’s engine run.

A day or two after Irma left town, The Washington Post ran a story about Ben’s employer, the infamous memo, and the manager’s poor attempt to keep the doors open.  It’s difficult to know what the company will learn from this experience.  We, however, can use it to deliver a message about how to do things differently.

 

 

 

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Post-Harvey Restoration: Consider a Deming-based approach

Dominoes

The effects of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma will be felt for years. AccuWeather has reported the cost of recovery efforts will exceed $290 billion. That’s BILLION. With a “b.”   And that’s just hard costs: clean-up, replacement of vehicles and belongings, home repair and reconstruction.  That does not account for lost wages, lost business revenue, lost businesses, and worst of all, loss of life.

The 2017 hurricane season highlights the high cost of short-term decisions that have long-term and often incalculable consequence. While we can’t prevent severe weather, we can control what how we prepare for it – and in doing so, we can mitigate those losses that we often don’t know about until it’s too late.

Not by accident I’m sure, CBS news aired “Sea Change: How the Dutch confront the rise of the oceans.”   Henk Ovink, Netherlands’ water ambassador – the water envoy for the King of the Netherlands, spent two years in the United States working in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy. “I said to [his US colleagues],” said Ovink, “did you think about preventing the disaster? And they were like, ‘preventing the disaster? No, we couldn’t. We have to make sure we RESPOND FASTER.” It gets better…He went on to suggest to his colleagues, “…suppose that there is no disaster because you prepared better?” Prevention wasn’t on the radar – their first inclination was RESPOND FASTER.

This week, 60% of Floridians – all of Florida – are without electricity.  Florida Power & Light indicates many will be without power until September 22 (11 day outage).  Two weeks ago, toxic waters flooded Houston’s streets, businesses and homes; and chemical plants went up in flames. And Katrina swamped New Orleans a decade ago.  Following Katrina, we found out The Army Corps of Engineers feared the New Orleans levees would fail.  On the heels of Harvey, The Atlantic Monthly reported (August 28) that “catastrophic floods have been anticipated for some time,” and the Houston Chronicle “called flood control the city’s ‘most pressing infrastructure need,” and blamed inaction on a lack of funding.

What the Dutch seemed to know, and what we have yet to systematically embrace is that the price of inaction (employing hope as a strategy) far exceeds the cost of prevention.

For 1,000 years, the Dutch have been waging war with the ocean, because 26% of the country is below sea level. In 1997, the country built a massive storm surge barrier – the Maeslant Barrier – to safeguard Rotterdam for the future.  The cost of engineering and building the barrier could be calculated: time and materials. In contrast, it’s nearly impossible to calculate the total cost of the losses associated with our recent severe weather.

I don’t know the extent to which the Dutch are acquainted with Dr. Deming’s theory of management – but their approach brings Point #1 of Dr. Deming’s 14 Points for Management to mind: create a constant purpose toward improvement.

  • Plan for quality in the long term (at some point, there will be another hurricane)
  • Resist reacting with short-term solutions (if the levee design was tested and failed, learn from it; don’t simply reuse it)
  • Don’t do the same things better – find better things to do (consider PREVENTION over responding faster)
  • Predict and prepare for future challenges, and always have the goal of getting better (the next storm could be a decade away or tomorrow; – use available time to your advantage)

The Dutch – through the building of Maeslant Barrier – show us that we have much to gain by investing in continuous improvement; Houston demonstrates that we have much to lose if we don’t.

The price of dignity at work: one company says $20

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  1. Monitoring employees’ time in the restroom is not okay.
  2. If you believe monitoring employees’ time in the restroom will materially improve your company’s bottom line, refer to item #1, and please keep reading.

Item 1 should go without saying. It’s like telling colleagues to stop chasing the bats in the office – seriously – I’ve done that. Or telling kids to stop eating liver and onions. But at least one company, which we will refer to Company W, has proven me wrong once again. Some years ago, W’s management saw fit to expand the purview of “performance management” to include employees’ personal business:  employees spending more than 6 minutes a day in the restroom risk being written up. This. Really. Happened.

“The company’s human resources department described “excessive use of the bathroom as…60 minutes or more over the last 10 working days…do the math and it works out to 6 minutes a day,” the article stated.

I suspect this stroke of timesaving brilliance was born out of a not-so-unusual concern about productivity or output. I get that. There’s a problem – let’s jump right to problem solving because that’s the way of the traditional method of management – leading unsuspecting management teams down a bad path. So very reasonably, hypothetical solution in hand, management rightfully pursues a data-driven approach to said productivity problem. Enter technological ease – management implements the swipe in /swipe out approach to restroom breaks – thus confirming productivity is in the toilet. Sticking a pin in confirmation bias for now.

Imagine the unintended consequences of operation “haste makes waste:” trashed restrooms and unwashed hands. If there were any productivity gains (from the few who might have abused restroom time), they were probably lost on sick leave (remember – unwashed hands). I doubt going faster and trying harder did much for W’s bottom line.

The imposition of workplace policy on one’s basic human functions is just plain wrong. And limiting restroom breaks for the sake of productivity is dumb.

If this wayward management team knew Dr. W. Edwards Deming and his System of Profound Knowledge, they would know it’s they, not their workers, who are responsible for improving productivity. Dr. Deming fought against the supposition that problems in production were the result of workers not doing their jobs the way they were taught. Rather, it’s management’s job to understand their business as a system, make processes visible, and give their workers the tools and knowledge needed to improve the capability of the system instead of assigning arbitrary productivity targets.

You see, management achieves a high-quality product by improving the manufacturing process, not by offering $20 gift cards (one dollar a day) to workers who don’t use the bathroom at all during work time.  Company W did that too….  As I was saying, when the process is ‘in control’ – management is able to transfer resources from the production of defective units to the production of good product.

If W’s management embraced Dr. Deming’s theory of management, restroom time management, like chasing bats, would fall into the realm of the absurd.

 

 

 

 

 

Tree climbing or life-long learning -what’s the real AIM of our education system?

Graduation

“Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”.

– very possibly Albert Einstein

My son, Ben, is such a proverbial fish – and for at least 7 years, he’s been a fish out of water.

Benjamin graduated with his high school class of 2017 this past May.  I couldn’t be more proud of him.  Yet, according to the standards of the traditional system of education, he is “average”.  Those of us closest to him observed his intellect and intrinsic desire to learn at an early age. He showed interest in computers at age 3, and, as a kindergartner, he enjoyed reading and telling stories.  By age 11, he learned Linux programming language from a library book and, as a pre-teen, he created and published animated videos on YouTube for fun.

Ben did well in school in the early years-when the AIM was on the learning, something, I’ve learned from Dr. Deming, we are all conditioned to do well in our early years.   It all changed for him when his teachers and school administrators began defining him with letter grades and class rankings.  Take this in for a moment. Think about the movie a Christmas Story. It airs on Turner Classic Movies 24×7 from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve.  The main character Ralphie, a poster child of mid-western 1950’s life, pours his soul into his “What I want for Christmas” theme paper – the focus of which is a Red Ryder BB gun.  His palpable excitement turns to heartbreak as his teacher returns the paper marked with a BIG, RED, “F”.   Christmas is doomed and Ralphie may never be the same.  Now realize this scene takes place, less dramatically but with no less impact, every day in a school near you.  This is our traditional system of education.

The Carrot and the Stick – how common educational practices kill our “yearning for learning “ (intrinsically motivated) at an early age.

In his seminal work “Punished by Rewards,” Alfie Kohn teaches us that carrots and sticks (extrinsic motivators) might drive students to perform in the short term, but at the peril of long-term gains in being able to think on one’s feet.  Nowhere is this more evident than in our educational system and the handing out of grades as a means of evaluating the past performance of students and using this as a prediction of the success of failure of our next generation of workers.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, in his 14 Points for Management, eschews targets (goals) because – and I’m paraphrasing – they focus on completion (by any means), instead of through a process (which allows for continual improvement), and, in so doing, can create adversarial relationships with others striving to achieve their targets.   In a broader sense, they drive both fear of failure and lessen the emphasis on quality.

Translated to our system of education, targets and rankings cause cheating, focus on achievement, and drive in fear and suck the joy out of learning. This was certainly true for Ben.  I’m grateful that Ben didn’t completely give up on school.  When he became desensitized to the grades, he turned to gaming the system.  As I said, he’s smart and he knew exactly what he needed to do to earn a passing grade.  This is what I call survival mode. Marking time. Seven hundred and twenty days in what felt like a prison to him (4 school years).  It reminds me of the worst job I ever had. I loathed arriving in the morning and I couldn’t wait to leave.  Every minute was an eternity.   Our “fish” – the young people who don’t neatly fit into our system of education – are at risk of believing they are less than they are.

Here’s the kicker.  Rewarding the tree climbers at the expense of the fish isn’t yielding stellar outcomes for the tree climbers.  Karen Arnold, a researcher at Boston College, followed 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians from graduation onward to see what becomes of those who lead the pack, as judged by their superior letter grades.  “Even though most are strong occupational achievers, the great majority of former high school valedictorians do not appear headed for the very top of adult achievement arenas.” In another interview, Arnold said, “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries. . . they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”  Our schools teach tree climbers to climb trees – to achieve within the system.  By the same turn, why does this same system fail to teach visionaries to be visionaries?

Friends, 90% of us are average – and that is a good thing.  We have days (hopefully more often than not) when we knock it out of the park. We also have days when the best we can do is believe we gave it our best.  This is supported by our knowledge of variation – a pillar in Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge.  Separation of the tree climbers from the fish – or the high performers from everyone else – is arbitrary.  How can we, with a straight face, subject our young people – still wet behind the ears – to such judgment before they are even able to vote for a president?

If you’ve attended a graduation ceremony, you know the scene.  Pomp. Circumstance. The corralling of extended families. Pictures. More pictures. It’s all there.  As the proud (and maybe some less proud) families celebrated on this milestone day, the competition, rewards, and rankings continued.  Prior to handing out the diplomas, “special awards” were revealed. As the administrator described each award, the nominees were asked to stand and await the reading of the winner’s name.  One young lady (I will call her Grace for lack of remembering her name) was nominated for nearly every award, but received none.  Her look of disappointment – or perhaps shame – became more pronounced with each sleight.  I felt bad for her. Her special day became something less special.

When it was finally time for the graduates to receive their diplomas, the “fish” were easy to spot. Unlike their classmates who demonstrated their masterful tree-climbing skills, the fish were not adorned with awards of cords and medals.  On this “special” day – just like every other day – the tree climbers were celebrated and the fish were reminded of their average-ness or worse- their inadequacy.

I felt a pang of sadness for a moment. Then I remembered – among this school of fish are visionaries – and Ben is one of them.

(If you are interested in knowing more about how Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s work is being applied in education, refer to the work of David P. Langford, an international leader in the improvement and transformation of education through Quality Learning and Leadership.   Earlier this year, David was honored by ASQ with the Deming Medal for his 30+ year legacy of advocating the use of Deming management in education.)

 

 

Don’t Gamble with your Company’s Culture

vintage-vegas

“Our growth is hurting our culture.”

“We need more structure, but I’m afraid it will kill our culture.”

“Our culture is perfect. We don’t have processes and rules. We hire great people and weed out poor performers.”

Culture. When it’s good it’s great. And in today’s connected world (and thanks to sites like glassdoor), when it’s bad, it’s bad news.

What is culture, really? Your answer to this question will likely define the path culture will take in your organization.

Culture is an enigma. In my 25-plus years as an employee, consultant, manager, and leader, I’ve seen a few companies take a run at culture change; and even fewer are successful at it: from token gestures such as free food, games in the break room, and jeans Fridays – to years-long, staffed “culture change” initiatives that include road shows, music, and pyrotechnics (it’s true). Rarely – and even in the case of the million-dollar extravaganza – have I seen these efforts succeed. “Fixing” culture by traditional management methods reminds me of a week in Vegas: blow a bunch of money, do things I wouldn’t normally do, and walk away trying to figure out what just happened. Between culture work on these terms and Vegas – the odds of success are better in Vegas.

Culture is your company’s currency

Your company’s culture is part of your employer brand. In a full employment economy, culture is a major factor in recruiting top talent. Once your talent is in the door-it’s a major factor in retaining them, but the reason why might surprise you.

The culture we know through our traditional management lens is often described in terms of people, the work environment, and perks, to name a few. Take a minute and think about how you would describe your company’s culture to an outsider. What words come to mind? These things you describe would make most interview candidates feel pretty good about working at your company: jeans days, community service days, free lunches, quarterly happy hours. But what happens when it’s time to get the work done?

This is where the retention comes into play. My long-time mentor recently offered me a gold nugget and it hit me like a ton of bricks. He said, “culture is the product of an organization’s system and processes, AND peoples’ attitudes about them.” Wait! What???

That moment – those words – completely upended my understanding of culture. Once the people equivalent of the Heisenberg Principle (one cannot know a particle’s position and velocity at the same time), culture became a perfectly defined element on my Periodic Table. So while he kept talking, my inner voice furiously ran through test cases:

  • Consider a start-up business with ill-defined roles and responsibilities, no processes. The company grows – more and more effort required to get results. Employees become fire-fighters just to get the work done. Managers tighten budgets – “do more with less” – because profitability suffers.Culprit? Lack of focus on process.Impact on attitudes? Workforce is demoralized because they are powerless to improve the system.
  • A successful company thinks it is successful because it eliminates processes and rules. Instead focuses on hiring strong performers and weeding out poor performers. What happens? Competition among “top performers” creates intense focus on short-term results, which has long-term impact on company profitability.Culprit? No process, hyper focus on individual performance drives internal competition instead of collaborative focus on how to improve the system.Impact on attitudes? Workers are overworked and stressed – trying to figure out how to get ahead of their peers.

The traditional management framework doesn’t recognize culture for what it is. Culture is an outcome which is based on an organization’s processes and workers’ attitudes about those processes.

A Teenager’s Gym Clothes – a cautionary tale

Treating a symptom rarely, if ever, eliminates the root cause. When it does, it’s called luck. If you feel lucky, go to Vegas.

I offer for consideration my teenage son’s gym clothes. Here we find a stark reminder of the cost and futility of masking symptoms instead of addressing root cause.  He brings his gym clothes home twice a year: after mid-terms and finals.  It’s pretty unpleasant. When asked how he tolerates the stench during gym class, without batting and eye, he replies, “Axe.” Of course! Axe, the ultimate teenage boy body spray.   Each eye-watering treatment only masks the stench of the layers that came before. Traditional culture programs are a lot like Axe. A free lunch here, a happy hour there, a ping-pong table in the break room. The momentary fog of delight fades away and we’re left with the root cause – fermentation breaking down the fibers that could have evolved into a truly great culture.

Think big – start small

I’ve seen companies do big things in an attempt to manipulate culture. It never ends well. I’ve also helped companies work on small but highly impactful processes – and this work sparked the beginning of a culture shift. The former implies something “done to” the organization in hopes workers would get on board the culture train. The latter requires management to provide workers with the tools and support they need to focus on improving the work. Workers come together to apply their knowledge and experience – and data – to improve processes so everyone wins. And so begins a virtuous cycle that creates an environment where workers feel they are learning, contributing to something of value, and they feel appreciated.

“If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process…”

“…you don’t know what you’re doing.” The words of Dr. W. Edwards Deming are even more powerful today. I’ve been told many times over the years, “We don’t need process documentation. My team knows what to do.” When I hear this, I take to heart another of Dr. Deming’s well-known admonitions, which he learned from Ed Baker: “Don’t just do something – stand there” (observe, collect data, and learn—then act).

Double down on process

So let’s go back to where we started. Business growth.  The need for, and fear of – structure. Purposefully avoiding process.   In the absence of visible processes, much of how work gets done is left to chance. As companies grow and (in the absence of process) focus turns to individual performance as a way to “get things done” – culture will suffer. Don’t let Vegas odds dictate your organization’s culture currency. Double down with a focus on process and you’ll beat the house every time.

 

“Nailed it.” A lesson in overcoming project complexity

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When your project shows signs of trouble, go basic first.

It was Benjamin Franklin and not 70’s musician Todd Rundgren who first admonished us to pay attention to the basics or be willing to accept unpleasant consequences.

 “For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”

Are you singing yet?

“HOWs” and nails have something in common:
they’re pointed and effective for building strong foundations.

Much of my work focuses on involving people in activities and decisions about their work and how it will change as the technology they use changes.  Having been a consultant/leader with a Big 4 firm, my project experience is extensive and varied. Project work sometimes got complicated, and we’d have to resort to heroic measures to finish. Sometimes people got burned out, but we delivered.  Looking back, I can’t help but wonder….when the going got tough, why weren’t we looking more closely at the basics first – the foundations of team effectiveness?

I used to believe the secret sauce of strong project teams –and their effectiveness– was chemistry. Harkening back to a “Camelot” project – we had all the right capabilities and expertise, we were aligned on scope and approach, collaborative, and delivered a great project.  Those characteristics are all easily seen. Yet, as I’ve continued to explore the essence of organizational culture I’ve come to realize that a team’s respect for [and engagement in] structure, visible processes, and clear governance, although perhaps more difficult to see, were the foundation, the secret sauce, of what made all the other characteristics work well –and ultimately are what made us successful.

How did I figure this out?  Contrast.

Many years after the curtain came down on my Camelot project, I was asked to lead the process / organization side of a large technology project.  Starting a project is like building a house – the quality of the foundation defines the remainder of the effort.  The project had been operational for a few months when I joined so the foundation had already been poured.  I dismissed the occasional hiccups I noticed as “the team getting started on a new project” –for as long as I could.  At one point I suggested that we revisit our project governance – the operational guide, how it was implemented, and whether the team followed it – but this was a mature team and the general consensus was that everyone knew what to do.

And so I relented. I was the new person and thought it best to heed the advice of Edward Baker “A large percent of the time it is best to just stand there rather than to do something.” Baker was a protégé of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, and is the author of the recent book, THE SYMPONY OF PROFOUND KNOWLEDGE: W. EDWARDS DEMING’S SCORE FOR LEADING, PERFORMING, AND LIVING IN CONCERT. And so instead of just doing something, I observed and took lots of notes.

To be honest, there were so many things happening at once, it was impossible to identify clearly any specific, superficial cause for the hiccups.  Have you ever been sitting at your desk on a Monday morning and experienced the subtle fragrance that tells you your office trash can wasn’t emptied over the weekend?  You know you’d better take care of it – because it’s not subtle for long.  Intermittent disruptions quickly turn into a steady stream of issues blockers, miscommunications, and disagreements about how the work should get done.

The “ask” from the team arrived in a one-line email:
“Can you help us figure this out?”
Now they were ready for me, and I was ready for them.

I had been thinking a lot about what I’d observed, but I was hard-pressed to know where to start.  You know how in the movies the sound of a needle scraping across a vinyl record album silences a roomful of people?  The thought of my mentor’s reaction to my lizard-brain urge to jump straight to solutions has the same effect.  “How’s that working out?” he’d ask in his irritated-but-amused tone.  Then, he’d remind me that “faster is often slower.”

One of the things Dr. W. Edwards Deming taught us through the System of Profound Knowledge is the importance of understanding our organization as system. When we do this, we can study it and understand how it performs, and develop and test theories on how we can improve it.  When we attempt to “fix” the system without first understanding it – there is a high likelihood that we will make things worse.    So, as I slowly backed away from the fire with the still-full gas can in hand, I pondered what my mentor would say and remembered the advice of Tim Timmons, a Major League Umpire who presented at a function I attended.  On the subject of expanding our capabilities – and what to do when we’re just short of knowing what to do next – he reminded us to “return back to center” – the place where you know what you know.

So that’s what I did.  Using Dr. Deming’s diagram of how a system operates, I worked with the team to put together the picture of our project as a system – starting with the Aim (the importance of this project in the larger scope of the organization).

Capture (1)

After we defined the Aim and value chain (the activities that contribute directly to achieving the Aim), we looked at inputs and influences – starting with the obvious – software, knowledge, development tools and the like. As the list of inputs waned – we crossed over to outputs and outcomes. Again – obvious ones like requirements and designs were mentioned. Then I prompted a little – asking the team to consider some of the outcomes we saw that we didn’t want: strain, and delays…. Light bulbs coming on.  For 45 minutes, I shuffled between two sides of the white board -adding some inputs – but more influences; and some outputs – but more outcomes.

When we finished, we had a picture.

That picture helped us develop some themes – which showed us that while the situation seemed complex, it wasn’t overwhelming.  In the next session, we did some root cause analysis and looked for low-hanging fruit – the solutions you can test fairly quickly.  After three working sessions, we had a plan in place. Everyone was clear on what to do, by when, and by what method.

If you’re wondering, yes, governance (or the team’s lack of clarity with respect to governance) was a root cause.  We revisited roles and responsibilities, reinforced processes for communicating across the team, and engaged the entire team in the development of RACIs – articulating what Roles are Accountable, Responsible, Consulted, and Informed – for every operational process.  We also clarified the project methodology and trained everyone on it.   All of the governance resources and tools became living documents that could be easily accessed by anyone on the team.

You see, it’s one thing to know, in general, WHAT a “role” does on a project. When we don’t take the time to clearly define the HOW, it’s like using too few nails to build a foundation.  Before you know it, you’ll be fixing problems instead of marching toward your Aim.

Don’t Gamble with your Company’s Culture

vintage-vegas

“Our growth is hurting our culture.”

“We need more structure, but I’m afraid it will kill our culture.”

“Our culture is perfect. We don’t have processes and rules. We hire great people and weed out poor performers.”

Culture. When it’s good it’s great. And in today’s connected world (and thanks to sites like glassdoor), when it’s bad, it’s bad news.

What is culture, really? Your answer to this question will likely define the path culture will take in your organization.

Culture is an enigma. In my 25-plus years as an employee, consultant, manager, and leader, I’ve seen a few companies take a run at culture change; and even fewer are successful at it: from token gestures such as free food, games in the break room, and jeans Fridays – to years-long, staffed “culture change” initiatives that include road shows, music, and pyrotechnics (it’s true). Rarely – and even in the case of the million-dollar extravaganza – have I seen these efforts succeed. “Fixing” culture by traditional management methods reminds me of a week in Vegas: blow a bunch of money, do things I wouldn’t normally do, and walk away trying to figure out what just happened. Between culture work on these terms and Vegas – the odds of success are better in Vegas.

Culture is your company’s currency

Your company’s culture is part of your employer brand. In a full employment economy, culture is a major factor in recruiting top talent. Once your talent is in the door-it’s a major factor in retaining them, but the reason why might surprise you.

The culture we know through our traditional management lens is often described in terms of people, the work environment, and perks, to name a few. Take a minute and think about how you would describe your company’s culture to an outsider. What words come to mind? These things you describe would make most interview candidates feel pretty good about working at your company: jeans days, community service days, free lunches, quarterly happy hours. But what happens when it’s time to get the work done?

This is where the retention comes into play. My long-time mentor recently offered me a gold nugget and it hit me like a ton of bricks. He said, “culture is sum of an organization’s system and processes, AND peoples’ attitudes about them.” Wait! What???

That moment – those words – completely upended my understanding of culture. Once the people equivalent of the Heisenberg Principle (one cannot know a particle’s position and velocity at the same time), culture became a perfectly defined element on my Periodic Table. So while he kept talking, my inner voice furiously ran through test cases:

  • Consider a start-up business with ill-defined roles and responsibilities, no processes. The company grows – more and more effort required to get results. Employees become fire-fighters just to get the work done. Managers tighten budgets – “do more with less” – because profitability suffers.
    Culprit? Lack of focus on process.
    Impact on attitudes? Workforce is demoralized because they are powerless to improve the system.
  • A successful company thinks it is successful because it eliminates processes and rules. Instead focuses on hiring strong performers and weeding out poor performers. What happens? Competition among “top performers” creates intense focus on short-term results, which has long-term impact on company profitability.
    Culprit? No process, hyper focus on individual performance drives internal competition instead of collaborative focus on how to improve the system.
    Impact on attitudes? Workers are overworked and stressed – trying to figure out how to get ahead of their peers.

The traditional management framework doesn’t recognize culture for what it is. Culture is an outcome which is based on an organization’s processes and workers’ attitudes about those processes.

A Teenager’s Gym Clothes – a cautionary tale

Treating a symptom rarely, if ever, eliminates the root cause. When it does, it’s called luck. If you feel lucky, go to Vegas.

I offer for consideration my teenage son’s gym clothes. Here we find a stark reminder of the cost and futility of masking symptoms instead of addressing root cause.  He brings his gym clothes home twice a year: after mid-terms and finals.  It’s pretty unpleasant. When asked how he tolerates the stench during gym class, without batting and eye, he replies, “Axe.” Of course! Axe, the ultimate teenage boy body spray.   Each eye-watering treatment only masks the stench of the layers that came before. Traditional culture programs are a lot like Axe. A free lunch here, a happy hour there, a ping-pong table in the break room. The momentary fog of delight fades away and we’re left with the root cause – fermentation breaking down the fibers that could have evolved into a truly great culture.

Think big – start small

I’ve seen companies do big things in an attempt to manipulate culture. It never ends well. I’ve also helped companies work on small but highly impactful processes – and this work sparked the beginning of a culture shift. The former implies something “done to” the organization in hopes workers would get on board the culture train. The latter requires management to provide workers with the tools and support they need to focus on improving the work. Workers come together to apply their knowledge and experience – and data – to improve processes so everyone wins. And so begins a virtuous cycle that creates an environment where workers feel they are learning, contributing to something of value, and they feel appreciated.

“If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process…”

“…you don’t know what you’re doing.” The words of Dr. W. Edwards Deming are even more powerful today. I’ve been told many times over the years, “We don’t need process documentation. My team knows what to do.” When I hear this, I take to heart another of Dr. Deming’s well-known admonitions, which he learned from Ed Baker: “Don’t just do something – stand there” (observe, collect data, and learn—then act).

Double down on process

So let’s go back to where we started. Business growth.  The need for, and fear of – structure. Purposefully avoiding process.   In the absence of visible processes, much of how work gets done is left to chance. As companies grow and (in the absence of process) focus turns to individual performance as a way to “get things done” – culture will suffer. Don’t let Vegas odds dictate your organization’s culture currency. Double down with a focus on process and you’ll beat the house every time.