331 — 8 Examples of Successful Culture Change

“If you know where you are going, it doesn’t matter where you start.” Anonymous

Here are examples of some steps managers took on the path to major company-wide changes. Don’t be turned off by the apparent simplicity of each example. While changing a culture is very simple, it is also very hard, perhaps the hardest thing a manager ever undertakes. As these examples show, you quickly create the culture you want by taking small, simple steps, using every-day ordinary situations that provide opportunities to move your company in the direction you want.

The generic path of company-wide culture change is described in article 312, but the steps you take will be unique and personal — just as these examples are unique to the companies they came from. Your steps will be distinctive to your company because you will find ample opportunities for progress in the particular things your people do — every day. Once you’ve decided what cultural values you want, it doesn’t matter where you start.

1. Equipment — The management team in this California plant of a national company were committed to increasing employee involvement — which they believed was the key to improved performance and market share. They recognized an upcoming decision to replace a $1 million high-speed packaging machine as an opportunity to engage employees. (This management team was well down the culture development path and had learned to see every operational problem or plan as an opportunity for involvement.) As the design neared completion the design engineers met with the 12 machine operators. Over several meetings the operators input modified the design, e.g. by adding a raised platform with handrails around the machine so operators had better access to controls.

Plant manager; “We were learning to get participation on major financial decisions. The operators were very impressed and pleased to be involved. Following this involvement the operators decided to train themselves on the equipment — before it arrived. The resulting start-up cost savings were large, and the more user-friendly design increase the efficiencies well beyond what we had originally expected from the machine”.

2. Process — The cleaning crews in this plant were frustrated by continuously growing piles of product waste. Management, committed to employee engagement, asked the cleaning crew to tackle the problem. Over many months the cleaning crew carefully analyzed the complex causes of product waste and loss. This analysis engaging people from almost every part of the plant, bringing heightened awareness and sense of cooperation and responsibility across the board. The piles of waste became history, accompanied by stunning cost savings.

3. Process — In this plant, production line operators, frustrated by frequent breakdowns in the production process, decided to carefully analyze and correct the myriad small problems plaguing their line. Similar to the waste problem described above, these operators reached out to almost all other departments, and in this case to most of the outside material suppliers. With the strong support of management, over two years the production line’s productivity doubled, while product loss fell to almost zero.

4. Supply Chain — To strengthen the supply chain, a director invited representative managers from all areas of the retail giant to meet and make improvements. Initial meetings, while ostensibly focused on system improvements, were really a stressful jockeying among the attending managers for position, power, and control. These competitive department managers felt threatened by any topic they interpreted as challenging their autonomy. But this director knew that improving company systems required cooperation, not competition. By gently smoothing ruffled feathers and pushing all decisions into the group for consensus, the director managed to get serious interdepartmental problems on the table for resolution. The collaborative process opened up the supply chain for rapid and continuous improvement, while building a new level of trust in relationships across this previously heavily siloed company.

5. Emergency Response — Most chemical plants are ready-to-explode bombs. Safety is #1. As part of a plant-wide effort to increase participation in this chemical plant, the department managers agreed that when there was a plant emergency they would act as “available-resources”, rather than their usual “take-command-and-control” role. During the next emergency (caused by a sudden externally-caused power outage, shutting down much of the plant) the department managers came to the action point (centralized giant electrical control panels) but stood to the side, visibly handling complete control to the designated, supervisor led, Emergency Response Team.

For the department managers, such standing aside took unusual self-control, but it got the attention of everyone in the plant. By their visible behavior the managers clearly stated, “We trust you. We want you to take control of your jobs and see us as coaches and consultants.” This was one of many management changes that led to significantly improved employee engagement and a big jump in plant efficiencies and profitability.

6. Professional Services CompanyThe partners in this California professional services company saw employee engagement as a way to improve productivity and reduce errors. Purchase of a new and elaborate copy machine provided the first involvement opportunity — bringing employees together to discuss their needs and collectively choose a copier. The managing partner explained, “It would’ve been simpler for me to decide, but we saw it as an opportunity to build participation in teamwork. Everyone was pleased with the result.” This was the first of many actions the partners took to build more teamwork and cooperation that eventually remade the entire company’s work processes, way surpassing the original goals of improved productivity and reduced errors.

7. Transportation In this vast distribution center, managers realized that if they wanted employees engaged in cutting costs they should help people understand the financials. As an experiment they expanded the traditionally “management only” monthly division financial review meetings by inviting some truck drivers. The drivers were excited at receiving this new information and asked to be invited to future meetings. Managers were quite surprised and impressed at the drivers’ enthusiasm. Seeing how much employees longed to understand the financial sides of their work, the managers invited other previously excluded groups to these financial reviews. These previously “outside” participants gradually and unexpectedly morphed the financial review meetings into broad-based business and financial planning sessions — to the great benefit of everyone and to the DC’s bottom line.

8. Quality Control Lab — This plant is a sprawling, 2,000 employee chemical complex. As in the previous examples, the management team was committed to greater employee engagement. When they learned of employee frustrations in the lab (largely created by conflicting directives from various shift supervisors) they invited the employees to tackle the problem. Rather than directly tackle sensitive authority issues with their supervisors, the employees cleverly decided to write a standardized procedures manual. It took 18 months, involved all employees, and touched base regularly with supervisors. The process of generating the manual produced full agreement between all supervisors and employees on best practices. As the Plant manager said, “It solved the technicians’ immediate frustrations while strengthening teamwork across the lab and between employees and managers. Morale and productivity in the lab is at an all-time high.” An unexpected result: this manual became the model for new manuals in the many other labs in this international Fortune 50 corporation.

Lesson Learned

While most of these examples appear to be about equipment and procedures, they inevitably touched on, and resolved, long-standing issues in sensitive areas such as authority, control, power, and values. This is what developing your culture means, balancing the operations side with the human side. A balanced company culture invariably brings high performance and profits.

As these examples show, committing to openness and engagement, inviting people closest to the action to take personal responsibility and resolving their own operating frustrations, is the simplest and quickest way to get the culture you want — and the profits you deserve.

cc 331 — © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.

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