Culture is defined as “specific behaviours acquired (in part) from social influences.” These social influences can come from family, friends, co-workers, and others. When we wish to focus on efficiency improvement, culture can be an aid or a hindrance, depending on whether the culture is affected by forces encouraging change or forces resisting change. Let me give you a couple of examples.
A director of a prominent public sector company told me that all processes in his company were generally working well because staff regularly engaged in process improvement activities. I asked how his company knew what processes need improvement. It turns out they don’t know. Instead, they tweak here and there without looking at the big picture and the value of the process to the customer is never considered. When I suggested that culture may be a factor, he said he didn’t think they had an issue with change resistance and that they’ve always done things this way.
In a meeting with another executive leader, I learned that his department didn’t believe that processes could be improved in the services industry. “We’re not in manufacturing; we’re already doing the most work possible with the limited resources that we have.” I gave him examples of process inefficiencies in service industries such as multiple approvals on documents, loss of time due to waiting for work, inadequate computer systems that contribute to errors and waiting time, inadequate forms, or duplicated information across multiple forms, etc. He agreed that this could possibly be occurring in his organization, but he didn’t believe that the impact on work was huge. “We can’t improve anymore – we’re already stretched.”
In both of these instances, organizational culture is a hindrance to change and the organization’s leaders are its main adversary. Successful change initiatives have to be supported at the top. These companies are stuck in a status quo paradigm. However, the news is not all bad. Change can be stirred by staff. Unhappy workers, high turnover, multiple re-do’s of work product, systems that crash, extensive downtime, and other inopportunities can help an organization’s leaders to start thinking differently about how they do things. Conflict can be perpetuated by asking questions about why things are done the way they are done until a definitive answer can be found (or what generally happens, a definitive answer is not found and this forces leaders into action).
Another way that change can be produced is through technology. However, the danger of applying technology to pre-existing processes is that inefficient processes spur more inefficiency in the organization. The upside (if one can call this an upside) is that increasing inefficiencies will, at some point, grind processes to a halt. Leaders will then have to take notice.
One simple, yet effective way to invoke change is through an employee suggestion program. A quality culture focused on continuous improvement will implement at least 90% of its employees’ suggestions. Consider this: at one point, Toyota received 75,000 suggestions from 7,000 employees and implemented 99% of those suggestions. This is one of the things that make Toyota a leader in productivity.
If you’re a leader that is content to hide behind “that’s the way we do it here,” it may be time to re-examine your beliefs. Change your beliefs to change your organization’s culture to become a culture of continuous improvement. By doing so, you will see major benefits in improved productivity, improved quality, better safety, faster delivery, lower costs, and greater customer satisfaction.