Six Sigma
Last Word


Quality Management
A. Blanton Godfrey

Creating a Culture

Never underestimate the power of a good story.

Many times, while working with an organization, I hear someone say, "What we're really trying to do around here is to create a new culture." Creating a new culture is a lofty goal, and before starting on this difficult journey, there are many questions that should be answered.

 The first question is obvious: What is our current culture? There are many ways to try to ascertain the answer, but we must use these methods with great care. Too often I find that the "cultural survey" an organization has performed is no more than a labor-intensive collection of opinions summarized, analyzed and plotted in so many ways that people start believing that the resulting amalgam actually contains facts. We must stop and remind ourselves of Institute for Healthcare Improvement President and CEO Don Berwick's saying, "The plural of opinion is not data."

 A well-planned and carefully conducted survey can provide many insights, but it's just a place to start. The opinions of a large number of people carefully sampled are quite useful and many times do indeed produce an accurate picture of the current culture, but validating the key opinions and gathering evidence to support or refute the findings is necessary.

 We often hear statements such as "We're too slow," "We're always the last to market" and "Our development cycles are far too long; that's why we never make any profit on new models." These opinions can be tested. How long are our development cycles? How do they compare with our competitors' development cycles for similar products? Perhaps we're actually faster in developing a new product than our competitors, but we delay starting the development cycles for months while we argue over market analyses and funding. The result--entering the market late--may be the same, but the actual root cause may be far different than is commonly believed.

 The second step is determining our culture's impact on our business or performance results. In other words, which elements of our culture are hurting our performance, and which are driving good performance? Far too often, I find organizations working terribly hard to change cultural elements that they've identified as problem areas while ignoring the good parts of their culture that have sustained them for many years. It's usually more important to preserve, and even enhance, the positive areas than to change the weak.

 Now we can start answering the third, and most critical, group of questions. What do we want our culture to be? What do we really want to accomplish with this change? What do we want our organization to look like, feel like and be like? Creating this vision of the organization is not easy. It involves building support for this vision throughout all levels, divisions and departments, and all diverse groups. As we create the elements of this vision, we should slow down and test each element for its potential contributions to the organization. Only then will we know the true priorities--what has to be done first and what resources we can afford to devote to the task.

 Now we're ready to begin. We have a clear picture of where we are--how this culture supports our organizational goals and how it inhibits them. We know what we want to achieve, what culture we want, and how this new culture will enhance our performance. Now all we need is the means to make the change.

 One of the best ways of changing an organization's culture is described in David Armstrong's three books on corporate storytelling. Over the years, Armstrong and other senior leaders of his company have created a strong and dynamic internal culture by one of the oldest culture-building techniques--storytelling. Throughout millennia, societies have reinforced, and even created, their beliefs by passing on the oral histories of their culture. People have an inherited talent for remembering stories, sometimes even long and complex ones. And these remembered stories provide a framework for current and future decisions and actions.

 Cognitive psychologists have long known the power of the mind to remember stories, examples and case studies. Long after theory is blurred in our minds, we remember the details of an illustrative story. In company after company, people with whom I've worked have told me the stories that have shaped their behavior.

 One executive shared with me a story from his long-ago summer job in a theme park. One day, he entered the small employee cafeteria, where he noticed that someone had left some garbage on the table next to his. A few minutes later, an older man came in and cleared the dirty table before sitting down. Embarrassed, the young man explained to his colleague that he had planned to clean it up in a few minutes but had decided to eat first. "No problem, I'll take care of it," said the older gentleman. Later, as they were eating, the future executive introduced himself to the older man, who replied, "Glad to meet you, I'm Roy Disney."

 Walt Disney's brother was living the rule, "When you see a mess, clean it up." This experience stuck with the executive for more than 30 years. The one-time Disneyland employee, now trying to create the same culture within his company, often shares the tale with his employees.

 In creating a new culture, we should never underestimate the power of capturing and sharing stories about the behaviors that will define our new vision of what we can be. As these stories become embedded in the minds of our people, our new culture will take shape.


About the author

A. Blanton Godfrey is dean and Joseph D. Moore Distinguished University Professor at North Carolina State University's College of Textiles. E-mail him at agodfrey@qualitydigest.com .


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