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3:39 am
March 2, 2006
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Creating Culture Change – A Pathway To Improved Reliability

improving_maintenance_and_reliability_through_cullture_changePart I of this four-part series introduced the concept that “culture” actually can be the root cause of failure of change programs. This month, the author discusses the elements that comprise “culture.”

There are four elements that comprise what we refer to as “culture.” They are: organizational values, role models, rites and rituals and cultural infrastructure. All of them work in conjunction with each another to make up that rather elusive thing we call “organizational culture.” When people talk about making a “cultural change,” they mean that they wish to alter the value system, displace people who are emulated (but not in line with the new values), change the rites and rituals and reframe the cultural infrastructure. Think about the implication of this change effort. It certainly is a major step for any firm to take. That’s why it is so difficult to implement–and why it is so difficult to make stick over the long-term.

Element # 1: Organizational values
Organizational values are the beliefs and assumptions that an organization believes to be true and uses as a set of guiding principles for managing its everyday business. They are what collectively drive decision-making within a company. For instance, an organizational value may be that production is the only thing of importance and, when things break, rapid response is needed in order to return them to service. Another example of an organizational value is that equipment should never fail where the failure has not been anticipated through proactive maintenance work initiatives. Although these two examples are very different, in each case, the value described drives the collective decision-making process for the organization.

What are your organization’s values? Thinking about and identifying them may not be as easy as you think; the true values of a company are not always written down. Instead, they reflect how the employees of the company collectively behave, how they conduct their business and what they believe the true measures of success are. Organizational values for our discussion can be defined as:

. . . a company’s basic, collectively understood, universally applied and wholly accepted set of beliefs about how to behave within the context of the business. . . They also describe what achieving success feels like. These values are internalized by everyone in the company. Thus, they are the standard for accepted behavior. When faced with a problem, those within an organization will invariably make a decision that reflects the organizational values of that business. These decisions often are not made consciously. That’s because organizational values are internalized and taken for granted.When you make a decision supported by the values, you feel comfortable.When your decison is not supported by those values, you sense something is not right with your world.

Element #2: Role models
Role models are people within the company who perform in a fashion that the organization can and wants to emulate. They are successful individuals who stand out in the organization by performing in line with the corporate value system.

Role models show people that if they wish to be successful, they need to follow the values set up for the organization. These role models are then copied by those who work within the business because they show how to perform within the culture. In addition, the role models are used as examples for newcomers to show them how they should behave if they wish to succeed. For emphasis, consider these three key components of a role model:

  • Top of the organization.Most people who are used as role models are at or near the top of the organization’s hierarchy. These are the people we view as the most successful. They are the managers of our departments, the leaders– the ones who set the direction for the business. The key word here is successful. Because those at the top are perceived as successful, we tend to use them as role models. There is another reason why we often choose our leaders as role models. They set the expectations of what we are to accomplish at work. In most cases, these expectations are in line with their expectations for themselves. As a result,we emulate and assume their style because we are all working towards the same end. In addition, failure to achieve these expectations usually has severe negative outcomes. Therefore, modeling the manager to achieve the desired results makes sense.
  • Successful within the organization’s culture. The second component is that role models are not merely successful–they are successful within the existing culture. This is very important. Since role models are those who we emulate and since they have shown that they can be successful in the existing culture, the existing culture is continuously reinforced.
  • A style we can identify with and adopt. Even though some people are successful within the culture, there still may be reasons why we would not choose them as our role models. If we truly want to use people as role models, we need not only to view them as successful, but also to feel comfortable adopting their style of management.

Suppose you are the type of person who firmly believes that all people within the workforce have unique value and should be treated with dignity and respect. Further suppose that your manager (who is a successful part of the organization) has achieved this position by acting and behaving in exactly the opposite fashion. Could you accept this person as a role model? Your answer probably would be “no.”

Although you want to behave in a manner that will provide you with a successful career, the behavior of your manager could never fit your personal beliefs and manner of conducting business.

The role model that is in conflict with our personal value system is worth further discussion. This type of person is the most difficult to work with.His/her beliefs and actions are so opposed to our own that it is virtually impossible to adopt his or her style of management or behavior without violating who we are.

There are alternatives when you are confronted with this type of situation. You can leave the organization and seek work elsewhere. You can attempt to transfer to another department. Or, you can try to stick it out and survive, hoping that the individual will leave before you do.

Not everyone is a positive role model.We often are presented with “good bad examples.” These are people who we can look at and say “here is someone who I do not wish to act like.” If you examine why you feel this way and adopt behaviors that are opposite and more in line with how you feel you should behave, then these individuals will have done you a great service. They will have shown you a model that you will choose to reject for a more positive (and opposite) one when you become a role model later on in your career.

Element #3: Rites and rituals
Rites and rituals are the work processes that go on from day to day within a company. They are so ingrained in how people conduct business that they are not actually visible to those within the organization. Rituals are “how things are done around here.” Rites are a higher level of rituals. They are the events that reinforce the behavior demonstrated in the rituals.

A ritual is a rule or set of rules that guide our day-to-day work behavior. Rituals are taken for granted because they are an integral part of what our jobs are and how we do them. As they are repeated daily, rituals become an accepted part of how business is conducted; over time, they become invisible to those who follow them. Yet, they are extremely important, not only because they define what we do and how we do it, but because they represent our culture and the value system in place in our plant. Furthermore, rituals are taught to new employees so that they understand “how the work gets done around here.” Rituals guide how people communicate and interact.

Because rituals are so ingrained in our work, outsiders might say they are blindly followed –even if they make little or no sense.Moreover, they often are fiercely defended, simply because “that’s how things are done.”This explains, to some degree, why new programs or processes that conflict with plant rituals encounter strong resistance when they are implemented. Each of us has had this experience.

The first thing we are given on our first day of work is training in how the work is conducted–the rituals of the job or department and, more importantly, the culture in which we now reside. As a new employee, this training is highly significant because we are being told not only how to act, but also what is needed for us to be successful.

Many years ago, I took on my first supervisory role as a foreman at my plant. Before the foreman that I was replacing moved over to another area, we spent an entire week together. I learned how to assign work to the workforce, how to interact with production, how to order materials and many other tasks.

At the time, our plant was totally reactive in the way we conducted maintenance. When things broke down, our most important task was to repair them as quickly as possible and return them to service.

Still, I was surprised to learn, after lunch on Friday, that the entire crew had not been assigned additional work, but, instead, remained at their staging area. When I questioned this policy, the foreman who I was replacing told me the crew was waiting for things to break so that they could rapidly respond to the problem(s), make the needed repair(s) and avoid weekend overtime.

Being somewhat naïve, I asked why crew memebers couldn’t be assigned jobs that could easily be interrupted. That way, I reasoned,we could get some work accomplished while at the same time still be available to respond to plant emergencies.

I was told, in no uncertain terms, not to “rock the boat” because “this was how things are done around here.”

This was the ritual followed by each foreman. The culture was not about to let me change it! In our context, therefore, a ritual is an invisible day-to-day work practice that is accepted as how work is performed within the organization’s culture. The ritual provides everyone with a foundation for how work is handled.

Processes outside of the accepted rituals are considered alien.An organization will feel extreme discomfort when new rituals outside the accepted norm are introduced, even though it may not know exactly why.

When I suggested an alternate solution to waiting for things to break, I was reprimanded, even though the outcome would have been the same. We still could have responded to production’s emergency needs.

Rites are company ceremonies or events that reinforces our rituals. In a sense, they provide a stage for those involved to dramatize the culture and organizational values to those in attendance. Rituals and rites go hand in hand because, without accepted rituals, rites do not exist.

Rites can cover a wide spectrum of an organization’s events. They include performance reviews, training, conferences, service awards and departmental and group meetings, even pats on the back for jobs well done. Let’s look at a simple example.

Consider the foreman who kept his crew in their staging area on Friday afternoon waiting to respond to the emergency needs of production. Several rites were associated with this single ritual.

The first ritual was the “pat on the back.” When production called, maintenance was available to make the quick fix. If the repairs were successful, the foreman would have received the “pat” for doing a good job–a rite positively reinforcing a plant ritual. This sort of success would eventually translate into another rite–a positive performance review, a better salary and a chance for promotion.

Conversely, if the ritual were not followed, the associated rite would have a severe negative connotation. In our scenario, production would complain about the foreman’s performance, resulting in other potential problems for the foreman who was out of compliance.My idea about having the crews work on interruptible jobs on Friday afternoons not only violated a maintenance ritual, it also seriously threatened an established set of rites for the foremen–the pat on the back and others of more significance.

Element #4: Cultural infrastructure
Cultural infrastructure is the fourth part of the organizational culture model. This is the informal set of processes that work behind the scenes to pass information, spread gossip and influence behavior of those within the company. The various components of an organization’s structure can be represented as blocks on an organization chart. Although each of these these blocks represents a specific function within the company, none of them can stand alone. They need the connecting lines that tie them together, providing a linkage for all of the individual parts. This linkage is the cultural infrastructure. For our discussion,we will focus on people and communications as the key elements of the cultural infrastructure. These components are the glue that binds together the organizational culture and promotes sustainability of the firm. Thus, our definition of cultural infrastructure is as follows:

. . . the hidden hierarchy of people and communication processes that binds the organization to the culture and sustains it over time. . .

components_of_cultural_infrastructureThe cultural infrastructure includes:

  • Story Tellers–promoting the culture through war stories
  • Keepers of the Faith–mentors and protectors of the culture
  • Whisperers–passers of information behind the scenes
  • Gossips–the hidden day-to-day communication system
  • Spies–passers of sensitive information to those who may or may not need to know
  • Symbols–mechanisms for conveying what and who is important
  • Language–terminology that describes what is done and often how

Each of the cultural infrastructure components listed here can be used to promote cultural change or, conversely, to disrupt it. Table I identifies each component, providing a brief indication of what and how you need to use them to successfully support your change initiatives.

Changing the cultural infrastructure is not an easy task. Great care and patience must be taken if you are going to make the attempt. Cultural infrastructure is a hidden force that, if not dealt with,will most assuredly work to undermine whatever changes you are attempting to implement.

Cultural change and reliability
Fig. 1 describes a reactive repair-based work scenario. First, something breaks down (block 1); the problem is then identified; a maintenance crew dashes in, makes the save and order is restored (block 2).As a result, the crew receives praise from production for a job well done (block 3). The praise is most often immediate and the reactive behavior is, therefore, immediately reinforced.Maintenance is now ready for the next emergency (block 4).

reactive_repair-based_work_scenarioFrom Fig.1, you can see that the organizational values dictate the response from the maintenance organization. In this example,it is “drop what you are doing and fix the equipment that has broken down.”

In many cases this type of response is required. All too often, however, the quick fix or “emergency job” is not really an emergency at all–but rather just someone’s desire to get their job worked ahead of others. Nevertheless, when the call comes in, maintenance responds and is summarily rewarded.

This response and the related reward are the rituals and their reinforcing rites at work.Over time the rapid responders are rewarded for their efforts and become the role models for the organization.

What you see at work here is the perpetuation of the reactive maintenance model. Since we wish to change the culture to one focused on reliability,we need to alter the culture.To accomplish this,we need to change the four elements of culture as follows:

1. The organizational values must be altered. If the values support a reactive behavior it is impossible to change the culture. This is the role of the leadership team.

2. Once the values have been altered, work processes, structure, communication and other basic operational processes must be changed. The rapid response can no longer be tolerated unless it truly is necessary.Additionally, a new reward structure must be put in place to provide those you wish to change with reinforcement for the new set of behaviors you wish them to learn. This is the way you can modify your rituals and their supporting rites.

3. The role models of the reactive process need to adopt the new reliability process or they need to be removed from role-model positions. It is critical that you have the people in place to model the new behavior as it is being implemented.This will work on two levels. First, the organization will see that as work takes place there are people in place showing them the new way “things are going to be done around here.” Second, it proves to the organization that you are serious about the change.

4. Finally, you need to pay careful attention to the key members of the cultural infrastructure. Remember that these individuals are the behindthe- scenes communication network. You need their support. This often can be accomplished by including them in the effort. Coming next month This series continues next month by examining the Eight Elements of Change, the next level at which you need to work to deliver a successful change process. MT


Steve Thomas has more than 35 years of experience in the petrochemical industry, working in the areas of maintenance and reliability. He holds a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from Drexel University and M.S. degrees in Systems Engineering and Organizational Dynamics from The University of Pennsylvania.His two books, Successfully Managing Change in Organizations: A Users Guide, and Improving Maintenance and Reliability Through Cultural Change, published by Industrial Press, Inc., reflect his vast knowledge of successful, realworld cultural change and change management techniques.


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