Don’t Gamble with your Company’s Culture


“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.


It’s called work, right?

Dignity picture

Think about the last time you asked someone about his or her job.  The usual response is “fine…” or a sarcastic “living the dream,” yes?  As I turned the corner into my 40s, work – to me – was a means to an end. I envied the “lucky” ones who seemed to find the perfect career where work and fun we interchangeable.

My 20-year consulting practice is about making work, well, work – helping people adapt to changes at work.  I’ve always enjoyed my work with people – but the constructs within which I worked often sucked the joy right out of it: having to compete with my co-workers for certain “glamour” projects; having to stifle my creativity for fear of losing favor with the boss, focused on revenue targets instead of project outcomes – there were times I wondered how I’d get the real work done.  Here’s the irony.  I was shown the solution at 25, but the solution for what?  The problem emerged, largely unbeknownst to me, over 20 years. And just as Glenda the Good Witch reminded Dorothy  in the  Wizard of Oz, my inner Dr. Deming said, “you poor dear, don’t you know you’ve had the answer all along?”

It’s true. In 1995 I was three years out of college and was recently dismissed from my first “real” job.  It was an awful job.  The company was circling the drain and, in response, management replaced the carpet and upgraded the conference room furniture (I saw this happen more than one time in my career).  My manager didn’t want to manage and the C-suite was looking for their next gig. In Deming’s terms, our system was not understood therefore output was unpredictable. Every “remedy” was a shot in the dark and usually created more problems.  In truth, this haphazard system did exactly what it was created to do and on a Monday morning, my severance package was the output. There I sat – sobbing – like Scarlet O’Hara (slightly disingenuous because it’s Scarlet after all) –  as she surveyed the devastation; the loss of a system she didn’t create and nonetheless depended on. There was no going back; nothing to return to.

The next morning, channeling my inner Scarlet, I took control of my world. That week I incorporated my first business, which was the means through which I met my mentor – the one who introduced me to the world of W. Edwards Deming, his System of Profound Knowledge, and a new way of thinking about the world of work. If you’re not familiar with Deming’s SoPK, it’s build upon four pillars: Appreciation of a System, Knowledge of Variation, Theory of Knowledge, and Psychology.

I began my Deming journey with my mentor and friend in 1995. I was fresh out of college and as such, it was difficult to pin the learnings on any prior work experience.  So off I went to explore the world of work – and most of what I learned is “what Deming wouldn’t do”.  It’s been fun in the way we all talk about work. We actively seek the aspects of work that make us feel okay about spending a disproportionate amount of time doing something that’s not our passion: friends, travel, great money, exposure – whatever it is.  But with each experience, I was left feeling incomplete.  I now know the thing that makes the incomplete complete is the secret sauce…it’s the part about management investing in us, valuing our contributions, and showing us how that thing we spend so much time doing has meaning.  It’s about dignity in our work.

As a 25-year-old, I saw Deming’s world, including the complementary work of many others, as vast and overwhelming.  Upon reflection, it’s simple and elegant. I needed to experience it through contrast: lack of a systems view of the organization, reactive management decisions, performance incentives that pit worker against worker and inhibit overall company performance, sales and productivity targets, and my all-time favorite – performance management with forced rankings: where there’s only room for 2% of employees to be top performers!  Why would companies want to limit the number of top performers? Money!

Last year I accepted what would become the pinnacle of my “contrast” journey.  Without a doubt, the worst management ever. Dr. Deming would have had a field day with this one. The violations of SoPk were off-the-charts egregious (think about the last Quentin Tarantino movie you saw – it was THAT outrageous).  In most organizations, the by-product is a lukewarm workforce and marginal success.  This company (or the three people at the top) were making piles of money and the workforce was absolutely demoralized.  Young people – for many, their first jobs – hanging on because they were deluded into thinking this would be a great place to launch their careers.  An outsider would call it Stockholm Syndrome.  I stayed long enough to show my direct reports a different way of doing things – and then I left with my sanity still intact.  Many left shortly thereafter and, with each resignation, management continues to believe the problem is with the worker.


Our social news feeds are full of quick reads about what we can do to make our work meaningful; what WE can do to find value in our work, etc.  Here’s the thing, friends.  What WE can do is important, but there’s a critical missing piece: it’s the responsibility of management to lead the organization and create a system that sets employees up for success – where they can feel valued. That’s not trivial.  In Deming’s terms, the organization needs to be articulated in terms of a system in a way that everyone in the organization can understand (if you don’t understand your organization as a system – and you don’t have a common aim – you don’t understand your business); people in the organization need data to know whether the system is performing consistently (so it can be improved); and the aim needs to be clear to all so everyone in the company can work on making the system more efficient.  When people are paid fairly and are trained to do the right things, everyone works together to make the system more efficient. Management values its workers and the workers feel valued. Then we have a virtuous cycle and everyone benefits because the business grows.

Here’s the kicker – SoPk is an elegant management framework and the process of introducing it into an organization is incremental – not scary, and with each step, everyone sees progress. Companies that employ SoPK celebrate success daily because employees understand the system and its aim, and have a framework for continuing to improve the system’s performance. The genesis of dignity and joy in work.

So this is the mission: bring joy and dignity back to work.  We’ll explore SoPk, Deming’s 14 Points for Management, and the works of Peter Scholtes.  I’ll share some of my favorite contrast experiences  – and more importantly, the successes of companies that get it. We hope something will resonate and make you want to dig deeper into Dr. Deming’s work for the benefit of you and your company.