Sherrie Ford, Ph.D.
Principal, Change Partners, LLC
1998 Quest for Global Competitiveness Proceedings
THE IMPORTANCE OF WORKCULTURE TO GLOBAL COMPETITIVENESS
This is the era of supply chain management in manufacturing, with sophisticated models of interlocking relationships meant to squeeze out weak links – or even strong links, if you can find a way around them, such as opting for ordering by the Internet rather than through retailers. Global prowess is now every manufacturer's goal, and supply chain efficiency – not just plant efficiency or proprietary technology – drives decision making. Thus, each year finds grander technique in world-class manufacturing spilling out of the books and journals and onto the plant manager's "to do" list. For example, kaizen blitz, an operations improvement technique of tightly orchestrated industrial engineering driven by associates on the shop floor rather than by engineers, has not become mainstream. In former eras, it would have been left to the consultants or at least to corporate facilitation. This method compresses the continuous improvement project, getting years' worth of competitive gains in two weeks. In the last year, some of the young, bright plant managers I am acquainted with, who have a "do-it-yourself" mentality, began bypassing consultants in the technique and started facilitating it themselves. That is a strategy I have seen several times since the 90s began: plant managers forming teams themselves, facilitating episodes of breakthrough thinking themselves, in every way assuming the long-heralded shift from plant manager as domineering driver to plant manager as creative team coach and doing it without outside help. And that is a good thing.
But one thing, in the pursuit of global prowess, corporate and division management are not paying attention to as a key factor. The supply chain links – the actual factories where production occurs – are governed by the workcultures in ways in which even the brightest, most progressive plant managers are unaware. They have not yet come to understand that there is much more to their role than the shift to being a coach instead of being a boss. Beyond coach, they are, indeed, culture makers. This is a much larger, more demanding role in leading a site to higher levels of competitiveness. Why so?
Our findings about workculture suggest that there is more to success in enhancing competitiveness at the site than how the site manager defines his or her role. To believe so would be to remain enamored of the thought that it is the site manager playing the only pivotal role. Our findings reveal that it is the widely divergent beliefs about roles (plant manager's included) throughout the plant that, when made conscious and visible, account for how and whether a site can truly become a more competitive group.
WORKCULTURE AND LEGACY SYSTEMS
There are many definitions of workculture, most pointing to how willing employees are to do work outside their job descriptions or beyond their normal schedules, their collective beliefs about the company and its values, or legends and stories passed through the ranks over the years. Workculture in this general sense can be recognized when you think of comments such as "people who come form GE," or "He's a classic J & J manager," or "No doubt about it – she's a DuPonter." In any of these cases, you are generalizing about observations many have noted over time – picking up on visible, predictable norms for a given company or given site.
Another example of this general sense would be the "workculture shock" northern managers often experience when they first come to the south and find significant absenteeism the first week of deer hunting. The term "workculture" points to fascinating sociologies and, when applied to real life, explains the often puzzling ways people think and behave, and ultimately how well they perform and compete. We believe that workculture governs success in a factory, not he qualities of the plant manager alone, and it is an overlooked phenomenon in the upbringing of a plan manager, even in progressive companies.
A companion concept to workculture is what we have begun calling "legacy systems," not generalities of the company population derived from corporate or regional flavors, but what is unique in each plant. Legacy systems are the greater part of what makes a specific workculture perform in the way that is does. In information management terminology, legacy systems refers to what characterizes any technology, legacy systems refers to what characterizes any technology residing in the install-base: systems of your that you have to deal with to run the next generation. Borrowed in order to explain a critical aspect of workculture, the term "legacy systems" points to a similar quality in an organization's evolution to next generations of management. When a new approach must be implemented (new machines, new methods, new mangers, new materials), the workculture responds according to the rigidity of flexibility permitted by these legacies.
Legacy systems, if identified and made visible, can be resolved to fit the new order effectively and swiftly. If not identified, and if they remain invisible, the toll on human capital and real capital is enormous.1
Let me try to illustrate these points. If a particular factory is high performing, meeting world-class deadlines with near six sigma quality with fewer people than it did a decade ago, it does so in part thanks to a corporate culture focused on world-class manufacturing. Nor manufacturing site on its own would know about, for example, six sigma, or how to pursue its goals.
However, whether or not the lesson of six sigma will be understood, embraced, sustained, and improved by the entire population is totally owing to something beyond the general notion of workculture. Rather it is owing to what the site's population in fairly unconscious ways decides it is willing to do. And if that factory continues this performance for long, it will be because of the specific power that comes with resolution in its unique legacy systems, the aspect of workculture that mobilizes change or resists it.
One fiberglass plant in my area underwent a cultural discovery process whereby numerous significant features of workculture as well as many legacy systems were revealed. The 400 employees there had become high performing, meeting world-class deadlines with superior quality with fewer employees consistently for over nearly two decades. As a workculture, here is how they describe themselves:
From this abbreviated list, you can see that a shared belief (legend, story) is that the hourly workforce is singularly capable of doing extraordinary things. Few then or now would dispute this belief or, as you often hear, counter that a significant percent of the workers do not carry their load.
- "We are known for doing the un-doable."
- "They always send us the hard projects no one else can do."
- "We don't depend on (having the same) plant manager, because they're always promoting the ones they send down here." (hourly)
- "We've got some really great people out there." (management)
It is their legacy systems, however, that add depth and singularity to this belief of tough, can-take-any-assignment shop floor identity, and more importantly explain power for why this high performing workculture seems to have stalled emotionally. Tensions, stress, and hostile company-union relations were reaching unprecedented levels. Hence, the desire for outside help to find out why.
WHAT ARE LEGACY SYSTEMS?
Legacy systems arise from all that has gone before in a given workculture; in this case, over 17 years. Referring to unique situations or perceptions that grow within a specific workculture, legacy systems, when analyzed, suggest a profusion of contradictions, resolvable only with clarity in vision for why the organization exists now. What made sense in one era is only confusing today; yet, organizational beliefs may not always fade or transform to suit today's needs. In this case, seven plant managers have come and gone, each leaving an imprint of "Do more with less." And the site has done just that, partly, perhaps, because of their cultural belief that "We are known for doing the un-doable." Over the years, management and hourly have had huge amounts of training in quality, teams, and problem-solving. But the accumulative effects on the workculture have led more and more to subsets of contradictory beliefs. During the assessment process, charting these contradictions led me at times to wonder if these people shared a culture at all, so passionately stated were the paradoxical beliefs.
EXAMPLES OF LEGACY SYSTEMS
The following are the fiberglass plant's examples of legacy systems – unconscious contradictions that when made conscious can begin positive change.
- Dirt road talks – This expression came up repeatedly as an example of past cross-level, effective communication, in sharp contrast to what had become a hostile state of affairs. It involved employees meeting after their shift, drinking beer, working through any conflicts that had come up during the day, and, in general, socializing. These sessions are recalled with great fondness and nostalgia, and even those who came to work years after the dirt road talks ended know about them and can describe what went on. Although remembered as extremely effective in management / hourly relations, dirt roads talks clearly are not regarded as having been a legitimate communication channel even then. In any case, employees would not restore the practice today, because it is unsafe, they have families to go home to, and they are older now and too tired to hang around the plant. Finally, the dirt road is now paved over and (ironically) covered with a guard shack. Paradox: The organization has bitter communication, even non-existent communication where it counts.
- "John Smith (name changed) was a people person" – This comment came up frequently; yet the context for recalling Smith's approach to leadership was somewhat one dimensional (as if being a "people person" were the simple solution to culture conflicts). Smith was the former human resources (HR director) who began as an accountant, spent a year on the shop floor as a first-line supervisor, and who, as HR director, led many of the team training and quality circle exercises that gave the plant high[performing skills and knowledge. His personal style was warm, engaging, and caring. The contradiction showed up in examining these memories of Smith in light of the current plant manager – an exceptionally caring and sensitive man who uniquely blended a people orientation with the ability to maintain production, quality, and safety goals. In fact, under his leadership, the plant received a worldwide diamond award for the best safety record, internationally, for the year. Paradox: The organization has a vibrant image of a great people-oriented leader; the organization is blind to the current people-oriented leader who has kept the plant – a potentially very dangerous site – safe and on track as a business.
- Communication – In one case during the assessment process, a participant attempted to write down every flipchart word, as if the group would never see a true record, verbatim, of the assessment. It enacted the theme dramatically that people lack trust and consequently engage in unproductive communication alternatives (though clearly making a complete personal record for himself had great worth to this individual). Paradox: Starved for, as well as glutted with, information.
- Safety – The idea of safety is deeply ingrained as a cultural value, so much that people are not willing to question how it comes about. Many claimed in the assessment process that it precedes training in a cause-effect analysis, as if somehow magically people are driven by a safety focus by fiat. Yet employees admit that safety has become peculiar phenomenon in that, today, to pass a resolution for an event or activity that may attract debate or whose approval is in doubt, if you make it a "safety resolution" it will sail through. Paradox: Is safety a true religion faithfully practiced and reflectively executed, or a dogma where thought is no longer applied? Has it degenerated into a form of politics?
- Staffing – Downsizing in recent years has led to confusion about how to value headcount. Seeing headcount go down causes the stress and fear of not being able to continue to complete the increasingly difficult jobs. At the same time, there is a distinct frustration with interference by so many (often supervisors) in employees doing their jobs. Frequent claims of "Get out of my way and let me work, we don't need all these people telling us what to do" definitely conflict with the equally heartfelt dismay over downsizing. Paradox: We need more people but we need less.
- Staff Reduction – A slightly different legacy system related to headcount surfaced in the conflict between continued headcount reduction as a way to improve business results and the belief that synergy and many, diverse ideas create growth and vitality for ht business. Paradox: We need fewer people but we need more.
- Reward and Recognition – A dramatic legacy system was revealed in the heated discussions about reward and recognition. A strong message came from across the whole organization that reward and recognition were sorely lacking. Yet two programs with significant payouts had brought about deep resentment, with no insight that both were designed to address the very concerns they were voicing. Paradox: We need reward and recognition tied to a job well done; we have two strong examples of payouts for a job well done.
- Vision – The idea of vision, mission, principles, teams, self-direction, customer-driven companies is wearing thin as a topic in conversation, even though as a culture, the site seems truly to believe in the principles of world-class management. Paradox: "Vision? You mean hallucination?"
- Change – It is clearly a legacy system that this site does not recognize that it has adapted to change incredibly well over the years. The assessment brought out that people at all levels believe "We never follow through on our great plans." Meaning that the business, quality and safety gains accomplished in recent years are unacknowledged. Also, it is clear that the culture has changed dramatically and purposefully. Paradox: Things never change; everything has changed, and for the most part, for the better.
Our company has had the privilege of working with long-term culture-shift projects in a number of industries, not all of them in manufacturing. At first we were simply trying to introduce team skills or problem-solving skills at the client's request. Clients observed the Japanese model and found that the only apparent difference between the Japanese (formidable) successes in productivity and quality and American successes in these areas was in how deeply Japanese factories engaged the entire workforce in process improvement. Compared with American practices, the Japanese were in cross-functional teams doing sophisticated cause-effect analysis and other activities while Americans had isolated employees by rank, function, and shift, with problems stashed away in blame.
But copying the superficialities of another's workculture – whether from another country or from your neighbor across the street – does not work. It did not take long for us to see that we had to look for something else other than how to charter teams. We came to recognize that there are fundamental dynamics going on not immediately visible, nor available to be copied. You cannot copy a site's history or its legacy systems. Nor would you want to.
Yet as you consider the prospect of being globally competitive, you need to consider that somewhere in your plans, you must develop your leaders to understand their roles as culture makers. In so doing, you must ensure their ability to discover legacy systems, perhaps influence the direction of future legacy systems, and in any case, cease ram rodding change and tinkering with, as Ken McGuire calls it, "random acts of continuous improvement."2 The workculture and its legacy systems will carry you through the changes you need, if you heed them.
1 See the excellent review of cost to human and real capital when cultures collide and legacy systems remain buried in "Cultural Due Diligence," by J. Robert Carleton, Training, November 1997, pp. 67-75.
2 John Sheridan quoting Ken McGuire in "Kaizen Blitz," IndustryWeek, October 6, 1997.