Can a Leader Change Culture

Culture is defined as the attitudes and behavior characteristics of a people group.

With that being the definition, it would seem relevant to most any organization then. Attitudes and behaviors of people in a group are the essence of the organization.

So if culture is relevant, the question is: Can leaders impact a culture that is already established?

The answer is a big YES, but it’s not easy. Before we get into the how of effecting change, let’s look at why it’s important to have the culture you want.

Why it Matters:
If culture is the collection of behaviors and characteristics of the people we lead, then it obviously matters. It matters with safety. It matters with quality. It matters with operational issues. It impacts everything we do. I visit a lot of plants and have done it long enough now to pick up on the culture of the workplace pretty quickly. Take a tour, talk to employees, look at the results over a period of time, and one will understand the culture of a facility/group of people. Just watch what people are doing, how they are doing it, the results of the work over a period of time, or the condition of the work environment. All of these are telling signs of the culture.

We would all want a safety culture where employees were actively engaged in training, in SWO’s, and took full responsibility and accountability for the safety in their facility. We would all want a culture that was quality focused at all steps of the manufacturing process. We would all want a culture where reliability and operational excellence was executed at the highest level every day. So it is important, but can it be more than a dream?

Can it Change – Things to Consider:
Major culture change normally take place when there is significant change in leadership or some other significant event. How many teams have been transformed by just changing the head coach? How many companies have been changed by a reorganization? How many departments have been improved by a supervisor change in some manner? The answer to all of these is A LOT. While change does not guarantee a successful cultural change for the better, it does happen. Significant change in an organization can be a Moment of High Influence and thus people expect things to be different. So if your team needs a cultural change in some area, why don’t you consider being that change agent. Don’t wait for your successor to do it. Here’s how:

1. Clarity is key. In as simple of terms as possible, what do you really want your group to achieve? Clarify this simple message to your followers/team. Many of us are trying to focus on too many things and getting average results in all of them. If safety is the issue, clarify that we are not going to get people hurt and here are the things we are going to do to make that happen. If quality is the issue, do the same thing. Just clarify what the goal is and how we are going to accomplish it. Simplify the message and focus as much as possible.

2. Change something. It doesn’t have to be major to have a big impact. 5S a work area to drive home the message of organization to help safety and efficiency. Start having a member of the management team attend each safety training session to emphasize the importance of training. Quit showing charts in your plant-wide meetings and engage the group in conversation to build ownership and teamwork. If your group needs a change in leadership to spark a change, just change how you lead.

3. Invest in others. Find those leaders within the organization that have influence. Get them to buy in to the plan and the culture you want to create. You need their help in influencing others. They may not have a title or a position that looks like leadership, but every group has those people. Find them and invest in them at the very beginning.

4. Be consistent in everything. Don’t send mixed messages. If you are changing a culture, it’s all or nothing. Communicate openly, communicate often, maintain a consistent message, and limit distractions. Make it a big deal and be sure all of your leadership team is on board. This team has to be all in if you are going to change a culture.

5. Expect opposition and negative response; that’s going to happen. “At some point, someone is going to get hurt; that’s just part of working in manufacturing”. You will no doubt get that response if you are targeting safety as a focus area. You can obviously point to similar operations that were injury free as an example, but more importantly, just stay on task. You keep pushing an agenda that benefits the people involved and more will buy in. Some will change their way of thinking. Some will eventually leave. A change in culture won’t be for everyone, but will benefit everyone.

For leaders to be successful in today’s environment with ever increasing levels of expectations, creating the culture you want is critical. You will not be able to effectively manage every element of the operation without disciplined, consistent actions from those you lead. To get the sustainable results we really want, we will have to work on culture change, and that takes leadership!

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