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If You Build it, Will They Change?

Sept. 8, 2020
The notion that culture can be “fixed” or even improved simply by changing elements of the physical environment is misguided.

I recently read an article that reported on a company’s efforts to “encourage collaboration and ‘casual collisions’ among co-workers” through the design of their new headquarters building. We’ve all read similar articles about other companies like Google, which is famed for its climbing walls, putting greens and “no more than 150 feet from food” office design rule. The idea seems to be that an open, inviting, “fun” office environment creates a collaborative culture where innovation and creativity abound.

Is this, in fact, the case? Imagine a group of managers and administrators who have spent their careers in a work climate where teamwork, collaboration, and exchange of ideas have not been encouraged.  Can we expect that they will suddenly (or even, eventually) change their behavior to take advantage of those “casual collisions”?  Will climbing walls, putting greens, and taco bars lead to an increase in new product ideas, process improvements, and decision-making agility?

Mind you, I’m not altogether discounting the role of an organization’s physical work environment on its culture. I once worked for a hospital in which all the senior execs had their offices together in a single suite behind a big door that was actually difficult to open. That design did nothing to enhance communications across levels of hierarchy, believe me.

Still, the notion that culture can be “fixed” or even improved simply by changing elements of the physical environment (or the “artifacts of culture” as sociology professors refer to them) is misguided.  In fact, there is a danger that managers might see “open design” and putting greens as quick fixes for a negative culture. Employees are smart enough to see that leaders who add a few amenities without real change in their own behaviors are naïve at best and manipulative at worst.

I’ve seen this reliance on physical artifacts in my own work helping companies implement lean concepts and methods. On several occasions, I’ve visited sites that had any number of shadowboards installed—all empty of the tools and supplies they were designed to hold. I’ve seen well-designed “communication centers”—covered with out-of-date metrics and information.  I’ve seen walls covered with value stream maps—that no one could tell me anything about.

Culture changes when leaders’ behaviors change. When leaders leave their offices to go talk with, coach, and ask for input from those who report to them (and do so consistently), the culture will begin to change, with or without climbing walls. When leaders consistently recognize and acknowledge performance that meets and exceeds standards, the culture will begin to change, with or without ping-pong tables. When leaders use performance measures as a way of uncovering problems and opportunities rather than as a way of playing “gotcha” with employees, the culture will begin to change, with or without lots of natural light. 

I once had a client, headquartered in Cleveland, that had operations around the country. I visited each location every few months. I had been to the operation in Georgia to cover workplace organization. On a subsequent trip, Chris, the plant manager, told me, “We tried your suggestion to install a shadowboard for the setup tools, but it didn’t work.”  I accompanied him onto the plant floor to take a look at the situation. The shadowboard was as the plant manager described it; empty. “See?” the plant manager waved his hand toward the board, “They just don’t put the setup tools back where they belong.”

I turned from the board and asked, “Chris, did you think the shadowboard was going to walk around the plant picking up the tools for you? Here’s the way this works: For the next two or three weeks, every day, you’re going to come out here at the end of the shift and see if the tools are on the board. If they are, you’re going to find the supervisor and tell him, “That’s just what I want to see.” If the tools aren’t there, you’re going to find the supervisor and ask him “Where the hell are my tools and why aren’t they on the board?” Pretty soon, they’ll get clear on your expectation that the tools be put back on the shadowboard at the end of the shift. After a couple of weeks, you’ll find that you’ll need to check the board less often. Eventually, you’ll see a culture of good organization that sustains itself. But the shadowboard won’t have done it.  You will.” Artifacts and amenities don’t create a strong positive culture. Leaders and the people who work with them do.        

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance.

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