In my last Blog I discussed the fact that a process improvement program should be geared towards creating an operational excellence culture. Unfortunately many executives don’t fully grasp the fact that you can’t change culture, you instead, change behavior, which in turn changes culture.
As an organization you want to develop behaviors that promote the best-practice behaviors of top-performing organizations. Behaviors like trust, teamwork, reliance on data, open dialog, and transparency. When many organizations talk of starting an operational excellence program they talk about changing culture but they don’t spend enough time talking about changing behavior. Many don’t make the connection. Teaching your employees about Lean, Six Sigma, Balanced Scorecard and other improvement methodologies has value but unless the executive team exhibits correct behaviors and insists that all employees practice behaviors that align with the organization mission and vision, there will be no culture change.
Many executives mistakenly think a dysfunctional culture creates bad behavior however when an organization is a poor performer you can always trace the root-cause back to poor behaviors, which in turn creates the dysfunctional culture. Too many executives think that culture change is achieved through training, and lofty “rah-rah” speeches and events. Top performing executives understand that staff soon forget what is said at these canned events and training sessions, instead, they intently watch what executives do and model their own behavior accordingly.
Behavior alignment is probably the single most important concept that executives must understand if they intend to develop a continuous improvement culture. Why? Because you do not change culture directly, you can’t. What you can do is influence and change behaviors and then, once the desired behaviors are reinforced (over and over again) you begin to change culture. It’s not a “chicken and egg situation”, changing behavior always comes first. Every effort must be made to ensure that executives and senior managers enforce behaviors that support the organizations goals and objectives and that they discourage behaviors that are contrary.
Let’s take a classic parenting example. It’s dinner time and your child really does not want to eat her chicken fingers and vegetables, she wants ice cream for dinner. She can be quite insistent about the ice cream, crying, screaming, pouting, and refusing to eat. For parents this behavior can illicit a wide range of emotions, from incredible sympathy (they don’t like to see their child upset) to anger and frustration. The parent has really two basic choices, give in and let the child have ice cream or make it clear to the child that dinner is important and unless the child eats dinner and behaves appropriately there will be no ice cream. If the parent chooses to allow ice cream before dinner what do you think happens at the next night’s dinner? Of course, the child tests the rules again; after all, it worked once. This testing goes on for many more nights until the child understands the exact rules of the house. If the parent keeps allowing ice cream before dinner then that behavior becomes the norm and ingrained in the household culture. Soon there are no more tests by the child on this matter, no more tantrums; ice cream is eaten before dinner every night. The parent did not develop the household culture directly, they established what the child perceives as acceptable behavior and in turn it becomes a cultural norm. Why would a parent allow such behavior? It’s pretty obvious that most nutritionists would cringe at such a choice, however the parent is making a trade off, they have determined that a little bit of ice cream and potentially poor eating habits are less of a concern than an upset child. Humans are the masters of justification and CEO’s are no different.
If an organization has dysfunctional management, a top-down command and control structure, a lack of flexibility, and overall poor financial performance it is very likely that this organization encourages or tolerates poor behavior which has created a poor performance culture. Poor performance drives the need to change culture and this can only be accomplished by encouraging desirable behavior, thus as a first step the organization must understand what type of behavior it desires. Desired behavior is driven by the organizational strategy and from that strategy the organization’s objectives and goals.
Remember the parent with the ice cream loving child? You are now that parent. The children are used to ice cream - They want their way and they need an authority figure (CEO/Parent) to reconfirm that you agree. Like any parent, you can avoid conflict and all the pouting and hurt feelings that go with refusing the ‘wants’ of your child or you can insist that both parties focus on the proper corporate goal and related behavior. If you choose the former you have just violated your behavior alignment plan and even worse, you have encouraged the bad behavior and in turn reinforced the current culture model.
Don’t think this can happen to you? Let’s take a typical problem - Two VP’s are not getting along on a large project. Their issues involve typical bad behaviors involving rivalry between their “siloed” organizations and mind-sets that are far from flexible; they have a meeting with the CEO to discuss their issues. The CEO hears them out but defers any resolution; after the meeting the following occurs:
The CEO thinks through the issue this way: George has been here for 20 years and is a valued employee and the same goes for Susan; both have bailed the company out of tough situations. I don’t think this battle is worth fighting I need to get them to move on to some less controversial issue and let them run their departments as they see fit.
The CEO arranges separate meetings with George and Susan and tells both of them this: “Try to get along and work out your differences, I don’t think you should make a big deal of this, just concentrate on improving your areas and do the best you can”
The CEO realizes that behavior modification is needed. The CEO calls a joint meeting with George and Susan: “George, Susan, I really value your contributions to this organization and I realize you have strong opinions but you need to stop focusing on what is comfortable for you and start thinking about what is best for the organization. I want you to get back to the team and use others to help you see this issue from a different perspective, a perspective that subjugates your needs to the organizations needs. I want this issue resolved by the end of next week. You are both highly competent and need to use the team and facilitator to help you determine the best solution. Please set up a meeting with me next Friday, I expect that you will not let me down.”
In this second (desired) scenario the CEO stuck to her behavior alignment plan – Develop cross-departmental cooperation (teamwork). Next, she strongly discouraged the “old” and bad behavior and made it clear the importance of adopting the “good” behavior. At the same time she acknowledged that the she valued both employees but was not going to value the “old” behavior. When George and Susan return next week with a solution the “good” behavior will be reinforced with high praise. After this pattern is repeated with others it will not take long before it becomes understood that the COO values teamwork and we all better learn how to cooperate and work together. Once the behavior is repeated enough times the culture will begin to change; from a siloed, self-serving culture to a teamwork culture. That is the power of behavior alignment.
Executives need to take note. If you fail to be vigilant and constantly work at behavior alignment you will not be able to achieve your goal of creating a culture of continuous improvement but even worse, you will be perceived as a poor leader because you promised change but did not deliver.