Culture change requires top-down commitment and vigilance

Dec. 10, 2010
Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, contributing editor, says leadership sets the culture.

When we perform assessments or evaluations at client locations, we easily can identify activities that need to be improved. There’s often a compelling business case for making these improvements. During planning meetings, we discuss with senior leadership their role in improving performance and achieving culture change.

Over many years, I’ve come to believe in two simple equations when discussing an organization’s capacity for change culture. If the senior leaders truly understand these two equations and maintain emphasis on them, culture change can be established and maintained.

Information + Action = Desired Behaviors
Desired Behaviors x Time = Culture Change

Information comes from the organization’s guidance — objectives, policies and procedures — and performance measures. Objectives, policies and procedures tell us what the organization has committed to support and what the organization’s expectations are of individuals, teams and departments. These guides tell us what to do and what not to do; they’re the road map.

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Performance measures include process, behavior, financial, employee satisfaction and any number of other measures that can provide key information to measure performance against the guidance. Measures provide insight; no matter what they indicate, the measures themselves are critical information.

If we have the information we need from objectives, policies, procedures and measures, we could theoretically perform at a high level. The problem with theories is the real world. In the real world we have distractions and competing priorities.

John Kotter, author of The Heart of Change, writes, “The central challenge is not strategy, not systems, not culture … but the core problem without question is behavior — what people do, and the need for significant shifts in what people do.”

Action is the idea that just knowing what needs to be done and how we are doing isn’t enough. We need to do something with that information. By establishing a routine of reviewing information and taking action in a vigilant, overt manner, we demonstrate commitment to the objectives, policies and procedures.


The two tools for taking action are positive reinforcement and corrective actions. Positive reinforcement is used to recognize when things are going as planned or better — the easiest action to overlook. It might be a simple recognition, such as a pat on the back. Or it could be formal recognition, such as a raise, promotion or paid time off, when things go well over an extended period.

Corrective actions could be a simple coaching opportunity, where the non-conforming behaviors are explained, discussed and corrected. Escalation might be required for continued, or deliberate, non-conformance, perhaps ending in reassignment or removal.

Positive reinforcement and corrective actions that are consistent and properly done will guide the organization toward desired behaviors.

This brings us to the second equation. When desired behaviors are performed over an extended period of time, you can achieve culture change. The obvious question then is: “How much time do I need for a culture to change?” A client organization recently asked me this question toward the end of a work management system pilot implementation. This was like asking how far I can drive in a pick-up truck without knowing the vehicle’s miles per gallon rating, the size of the fuel tank or how full the tank is.

It’s the vigilance of the leadership team that determines how much time it needs to achieve culture change. Culture change is more about changing the leadership’s culture than it is about how the workforce adjusts to new processes. Organizations that haven’t typically held craftsmen, supervisors or mid-level managers accountable take much longer to achieve true culture change. Organizations with strong safety and environmental compliance programs have a culture of accountability and might take less time.

Senior people often have gotten to their position by accumulating a history of accomplishments. They know how to delegate responsibility effectively and they look for indications that success has been achieved. Once success has been achieved, they tend to move on to new problems or new positions. The problem is that culture is like the effect of gravity; without a solid support structure, behaviors and measures will be pulled lower over time. Senior leadership is that support structure. They must remain vigilant and require answers to performance and to what is being done.

Senior leaders must remain vigilant. They should provide training or coaching that enables mid-level leaders and supervisors to guide desired behaviors. Without vigilance, the transition from merely desired behaviors to entrenched culture change will be very long, if not unattainable.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, is president of Alidade MER. Contact him at [email protected] and (321) 773-3356.

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