Want Lasting Change? Change the Culture

I remember my first assignment in a container plant. It was about 20 years ago, and I had just left the very structured paper mill environment. What I quickly saw was a plant that operationally needed systems and effective leadership in the worst way. When I say lacking systems, I am referring back to the days before all the structure that we have today was in place. There was no clear direction on safety, quality, nor reliability.

I recall struggling through those first few months of narrowing our focus, defining some basic systems, and trying to get everyone focused on a few basic objectives. I would later find out from the VP that put me in that role, that the leash was very short on that plant if we didn’t get it turned around fast. I guess that’s why they sent me there; they had nothing to lose sending someone that knew nothing about a box plant to a box plant.

While we saw steady improvement, it was somewhat limited in those first few months. It seemed like such a struggle trying to get everyone doing what I thought they should do. I finally realized that I could work myself to death trying to control and dictate everyone’s behavior. What we really needed was a complete change in the workforce’s approach to work. The change needed was much deeper than just putting in a few systems. We needed a total culture change!

Culture is the collective values and behaviors of a group of people over time. By changing the culture, we were able to move from an “employer – employee environment” to a “team approach”. We were able to move from a “renter mentality” to an “owner view of the facility”. Finally, we were able to move from a “victim view of work” to “mutual accountability”. Hey, it wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was so much better!

So here are just a few keys for driving culture change that worked for us and brought sustained change in all areas of the facility’s operation:
1. You have to get complete buy in from everyone in a leadership role. We lost half the lead team because they didn’t buy in! I hope you don’t have to go through that process, but leaders have to be together if you are going to drive culture change.
2. Team members in the plant have to see our values not hear us talk about them. If safety of our people is the number one focus item, then prove it. Shut the plant down at times to talk about a concerning safety issue (and I mean shut it down at times to have the most influence, not the most convenient times).
3. Simplify the key message of what’s important and tie it to why it matters to each person in the facility. There is no goal that doesn’t have a direct benefit to the team members. Make sure the goals/targets get what is needed for success.
4. Always explain why and not just what. “Why” gives the team a reason to follow.
5. Ask for input all the time. Team members need to know we value what they think and not just what they do. You can’t always act on the input, but at least you took the time to ask and listen.
6. Delegate, establish sub teams, and give up some control. Yes, it is risky, and do it wisely, but let go of some things.
7. Communicate simply, clearly, often, and in a variety of ways. Be open and honest.
8. Tear down the walls. There are no departmental walls, management vs labor walls, nor hierarchy of command walls. You want one team with varying roles within it.
9. It’s not group think, but it is group matters. Every decision is made through the filter of what’s best for the team and they need to know that and see that focus.
10. Finally, if you don’t genuinely care about the people you lead, don’t bother trying to drive culture change with the above approach. You will fail.

Past experience tells me systems are essential. Past experience tells me strong leadership and accountability matter. Past experience also tells me that if we want lasting, impactful change, that we have to change the culture. That culture may be how one work team in a facility works together, or it may be the entire plant. You have a culture in your work environment today. It just may not be what you need or want. Either way, you drive change where you can. Your leadership experience will be better and the results will follow!

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