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Are We Just Going Through the Motions? The Role Culture Plays in Improvement

Sept. 23, 2014
Tools, Culture, and Innovation (Part 2 of 3) Read Part 1: Is It Worth the Effort to Teach Improvement Tools to All Employees?

Cul-ture (noun) – Shared beliefs and values of a group, shared attitudes

Imagine walking through a business and discovering that all of the employee communication boards are six months out of date. Imagine that the red, yellow, green production status lights were all set to green and then overhearing an employee say that he could not remember the last time someone used the yellow or red status lights even though the production line goes down frequently.

Imagine seeing blank hour-by-hour production boards or quality charts showing perfect performance even though piles of rejected parts wait to be scrapped or reworked. Imagine a square painted on the floor that was meant for one container of parts and seeing five containers crammed into the space. Imagine set-up times that have been significantly reduced yet everything still is done in large batches.

In each of these examples, the business leaders may be telling the world that they are doing lean and Six Sigma, but are they really? The tools have been put into place, but the “Spirit” is missing.

Some company leaders might say that culture does not play a significant role in the success or failure of an improvement initiative. They believe implementing the tools is enough and that a bad culture does not hurt the effort and a good culture does not help.

I have had the opportunity to work in businesses at each extreme -- ones that were so bad you felt ill every morning when you woke up and realized you had to go to work and others that were so good the entire plant would erupt in applause each day that the customer-focused goals were met and there was a real sense of pride and teamwork.

Is it possible to fully implement lean and Six Sigma in a “bad” culture? Dr. Ed Deming did not think so, which is why he focused his 14 points on what it takes for company leadership to change both themselves and the company’s culture.

From Dr. Edwards Deming’s 14 Points: Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.

The point listed previously is near the top of Deming's list for good reason: Company leadership sets the tone and feel of the culture by their words and actions. Dr. Deming included this point as a way to wake up business leaders to the need for a complete overhaul of how they run their companies.

The following illustration may shed some light on why culture was so important to Dr. Deming’s teachings.

Joe could not sleep. He glanced at the clock for what had to be the 100th time. It was 3:06 a.m. He lay there, staring at the ceiling, playing out the events of the past day over and over in his mind.

“I am so fired,” he thought. “In a few hours, I am going to get ripped to shreds in the daily production meeting, and it wasn’t even my fault.”

Culture of Shifting Blame

His wife, who was six months pregnant with their first child, slept soundly next to Joe. “If I lose my job, how are we going to get by?”

The day before had started innocently enough. He got up, got ready for work and kissed his wife goodbye.

As he drove to work, his mood began to sour. “Maybe there won’t be any major disasters today, and I can actually get something accomplished,” he thought. “Yeah, and maybe I will win the lottery… twice.”

When he pulled into the company parking lot, he sat in his car and waited until the last possible moment to go inside. He noticed that most of the other employees did the same thing.

Joe walked through the office to his cubicle and not one person said hello. When he began his employment at this company nine months ago, he tried to engage the other employees with a pleasant, “Hello, how are you doing this morning?” He quickly learned that no one cared for idle chat.

Joe was a bit horrified when he discovered why they acted this way. He realized that if given the opportunity, his co-workers would not hesitate to throw him or anyone else in the office under the bus if it meant shifting blame for a crisis in order to save their own skins.

“Hey Joe, get over here right now!” his boss bellowed.

“Yes sir, what’s up?” Joe said as he walked into his boss’s office.

“Production line 3 just went down for a lack of parts! Why did YOU let that happen?”

“What!?!” Joe said. “I checked all of the inventories last night, and we had enough parts to keep the line going for several days. They must have been misplaced somewhere.”

“Look, I don’t want to hear your excuses. The workers are sitting idle, and one of our key metrics is taking a huge hit … employee utilization. Get parts to the line now or don’t bother showing up to work tomorrow,” yelled his boss.

Joe quickly went to production line 3 to find out what was going on. He was relieved to see that the line was actually running.

“Hey Joe, where are my parts?” said the supervisor.

“It looks like the line is running just fine,” said Joe.

“Oh, we decided to run product that’s not on the schedule in order to keep the employees busy. I have to keep their utilization up, or I might be the next one on the chopping block.”

“Wait, won’t that drain parts from the other production lines and cause them to shut down?” said Joe.

“That is their problem,” said the supervisor. “You better get some more of the correct parts in here so you can save your own job. I heard we lost a major customer because of this latest screw up, and the plant manager is steaming mad.”

Joe realized that he was in a no-win situation. He went to the warehouse to see if other supervisors had taken the parts meant for production line 3. No one would directly confirm his suspicions, but it was pretty clear that the unauthorized taking of parts was a common occurrence. He went back to his cubicle and called up one of his co-workers for advice.

“You’ve got to find someone else to blame,” said the co-worker. “Also, be sure to dig through your e-mails, and if you copied everyone in the company like the rest of us, then you can show how everyone should have known that this might be a problem.”

“What about getting to the root cause?” asked Joe.

“What? Why would you do that?” said the co-worker. “That would be the fastest way to get your rear end kicked by the plant manager in the production meeting tomorrow. He hates hearing bad news and takes great pleasure in shooting the messenger. No, you need to find someone else to blame … and fast.”

Joe spent the rest of the day expediting parts for production line 3. He decided to take the high road and focus on trying to explain what happened in the broken process instead of blaming someone else. “Maybe things will change if I speak up,” he thought.  

And now, he lay in his bed wondering if he had made the right call. He glanced at the clock again. It was 3:12 a.m., less than five hours to the dreaded production meeting.

“I am so fired,” he thought as sleep continued to elude him.       

What role does culture play in your improvement efforts? In one of my training classes, I run a production line simulation where participants have individual goals. A prize is even awarded to the person who does the best. Their desire to help each other is non-existent and the production output is awful.

The simulation is conducted a second time, and the main thing that changes is that the individual goal is replaced with a team-based goal that is focused on customer satisfaction.

It is amazing to watch the change in the dynamics as the participants start working together and helping each other in order for the entire group to be successful. The output improves dramatically, and the overall cost comes down sharply.

After this activity, the participants discuss how the pendulum swung from “selfish” to “selfless” and the significance of how culture influences overall performance.

How would you describe the culture at the company where you work? Do the leaders stifle discussion about problems and broken processes by slamming the messenger? Do they reward and praise individual firefighters more than teams who permanently fix problems?

Are there more than two or three people copied on e-mails? Do you receive more than 10 e-mails a day from people who are trying to cover their own tails? Is more time spent trying to find someone to blame instead of fixing problems? Do your employees show up just before starting time and leave as soon as possible? Is only negative feedback given by company leaders? Do middle managers and supervisors feel that if they don’t know everything about everything and make all of the decisions, they will be made to feel like inadequate idiots by their bosses?

If the answer to these questions is mostly “yes,” then your improvement efforts will most likely fail.

Examine Goals and Metrics

What changes might the leaders need to make to improve the culture? First, each of the goals and metrics must be examined to see if it drives the company toward achieving total customer satisfaction, supports the improvement initiatives and company strategy, and promotes a culture that is desired.

By the way, if your leaders still use “employee utilization” as a way to punish manufacturing, then your company is not likely to be successful with its lean initiatives. If the production lines are balanced and the bottlenecks are well managed, then employee (or equipment) utilization at the bottleneck becomes more of a demand metric and could be of use in measuring the effectiveness of the sales team (see Understanding the Demand/Capacity Curve).

Encourage Employees to 'Life Up' Their Problems

Next, company leaders need to examine how they interact with each other and with their employees. They need to encourage employees to openly lift up problems and participate in improvement efforts. One company I worked with called this “Encourage the Heart” and made that one of the performance metrics for its leaders.

Also, those hiring new company leaders need to pay as much -- if not more -- attention to the candidates' values and the way they treat others since this likely will dictate the future culture of the company.

Participate in Training

Finally, company leaders need to walk the talk by participating in the training and serving on a number of improvement teams each year along with all of the company employees. When workers have a chance to interact with their leaders, barriers between the levels and functions begin to melt and teamwork has a chance to flourish. Everyone sharing a common language along with class and team experiences also will link all employees in a common bond.

This is a different approach than teaching improvement knowledge to only a handful of leaders and certified experts.

So, developing a “good” culture must start with company leadership. It is rare that a culture change occurs from the bottom up (and even with bottom-up change, the only way it will be sustained is if it eventually leads to a change in attitude at the top).

So, when establishing your annual training plan, it is vital to spend as much time teaching, coaching, and mentoring in the area of culture improvement as it is teaching about the improvement tools. Dr. Deming understood this better than most, and that is why this great statistician spent so much of his time writing and lecturing about the need for company leaders to change their ways.

John Dyer is president of the JD&A – Process Innovation Co. and has 28 years of experience in the field of improving processes. He started his career with General Electric and then worked for Ingersoll-Rand before starting his own consulting company. Dyer can be reached at (704)658-0049 and [email protected]. Linked In Profile: He is on Twitter: @JohnDyerPI

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