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William A. Levinson


Culture: A Decisive Competitive Advantage

Get ahead of ISO 9004:2018 by turning your company’s culture and identity into a competitive advantage

Published: Tuesday, October 3, 2017 - 11:03

Some ISO 9001 users complain that the standard does not improve performance or deliver bottom-line results, while others are delighted by the standard as a framework for effective quality management systems. I pointed out previously that ISO 9001:2015 does not address, at least not explicitly, the enormous waste that is often built into most systems. In his article, “Small Man, Huge Shadow,” Mike Richman pointed out that Joseph Juran warned some time ago that ISO 9001 can easily standardize mediocrity, which is what happens when users seek only to meet the standard’s requirements so they can get a certificate.1

This article will focus on organizational culture, a consideration that can easily make or break an organization, and which is not mentioned even explicitly in ISO 9001:2015.

ISO 9004—“Managing for the Sustained Success of an Organization,” runs somewhat ahead of ISO 9001. Its 2009 revision includes considerations that now figure prominently in ISO 9001:2015. These include context of the organization, needs and expectations of interested parties, and actions to address risks and opportunities. The 2018 draft adds culture and values as elements of organizational identity. In fact, as Isaac Sheps pointed out in his presentation at the 25th Annual ISO 9000 World Conference, the draft devotes an entire clause to organizational identity.2

Organizational identity includes mission, vision, values, and culture, and it can convey an overwhelming competitive advantage. Roughly five out of six organizations are, in contrast, in enormous peril because of dysfunctional cultures. In “Stop Demotivating Your Employees!” authors David Sirota, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer write that “...in about 85 percent of companies, our research finds, employees’ morale sharply declines after their first six months—and continues to deteriorate for years afterward.”3

Organizational identity was used as an overwhelming competitive weapon almost 250 years ago by the famous Russian commander Aleksandr V. Suvorov (1729-1800). Suvorov won 63 battles, including against some of Napoleon’s future marshals and the famous Pole Tadeusz Kościuszko. He succeeded in capturing the fortress of Ismail by assault in 1790, against a numerically superior garrison, in an era in which a frontal assault on an unbreached fortress was considered suicidal. Suvorov wanted to fight Napoleon, and would have probably beaten him had he done so.4

How did Suvorov achieve victory after victory, and often against numerically superior adversaries? Russian military technology was no better than that of other countries, and Russian recruits were no better motivated than those in other countries—at least not at first. That was where Suvorov and his contemporaries parted company.

Why Suvorov was a conqueror

Almost nobody of Suvorov’s era joined an army out of patriotism. Frederick the Great depicted the typical enlisted soldier as an undutiful son, or even a man on the run from the law; once a fugitive joined an army, he was no longer answerable to any civilian authority. Frederick and his father, Frederick William I, even resorted to crimping, an unscrupulous recruiting practice in which a man who casually accepted a coin and drank a monarch’s health discovered that he had somehow joined that monarch’s army. Voltaire’s Candide attributes this practice to the “Bulgarians,” although their (Prussian) blue uniforms hinted as to their real identity. The Duke of Wellington depicted his recruits as the scum of the earth, although he added that the Army’s discipline usually made fine fellows of them.

If all this sounds bad, the Russian Army was even worse. Some serfs knocked out their front teeth to render themselves unable to bite open a musket cartridge, so the Tsar’s or Tsaritsa’s press gangs would not take them from their villages. Men who would have rather been anywhere but in the Russian Army were the raw material with which Suvorov had to work, and he converted them into an unstoppable juggernaut through the use of organizational culture. He convinced the recruits—not with what W. Edwards Deming would call “empty slogans,” but with actions—that the Russian Army was a better place to be than a village where a serf could expect to do nothing but work himself to death.

Suvorov began by ensuring that the army met his soldiers’ (i.e., relevant interested parties’) survival needs. These included ample food, good clothing, medical care, and hygiene. The latter reduced attrition from disease to roughly 1 percent in an era when more soldiers died from disease than from combat. These extrinsic motivators correspond to good pay and good benefits in modern workplaces, but extrinsic motivators can at most ensure that people show up and do what they are told.

Intrinsic motivation that delivers world-class performance comes from culture and organizational identity, along with empowerment and engagement of the workforce. In no other army was an enlisted soldier empowered to do anything without a command from a superior, but Suvorov recognized that the enlisted soldiers were the ones who actually had to win the battles.

Suvorov, in contrast to most commanders of that era who wanted only blind obedience to their orders, wanted his soldiers to know what they were doing and why they did it. He wrote The Science of Victory to be understandable by enlisted soldiers as well as officers—a characteristic shared much later in 1922 by Henry Ford in his book, My Life and Work. The latter, which is probably the best business book ever written, is just as understandable by high school graduates as it is by MBAs and Six Sigma Black Belts. When the workers know why as well as what they are doing, they usually do it a lot better.

Suvorov also implemented ISO 9001:2015’s clause 7.4—“Communication” on a world-class basis. He created a culture in which a single word or phrase conveyed enormous meaning. Unterkunft (literally “accommodation” or “lodging”) referred to dropped balls and missed opportunities—a very central aspect of clause 6.1—“Actions to address risks and opportunities.” As but one example, Suvorov criticized an allied commander who had beaten his opponent, but then “sat down in Unterkunft” while the defeated enemy soldiers escaped to fight again one day. A nichtwisser (i.e., somebody who doesn’t know and won’t bother to find out) was what Shigeo Shingo later called a nyet engineer, nyet being Russian for “no.” Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke later called these people “men of the negative,” who would always tell you why something wouldn’t work, but would never recommend constructive alternatives.

While “I don’t know, sir!” was an enlisted man’s safest reply to a superior’s question in most armies, Suvorov would have none of it. He once demanded of a soldier on a parade ground, “How many stars are there in the sky?” The man replied, “I don’t know, sir, but I’ll find out at once!” whereupon he began to count stars. This was exactly what Suvorov wanted—the willingness to find out. Only once did he accept, “I don’t know, sir!” as an answer, and that was when he asked an officer to define a retreat. The officer explained that his regiment did not know, did not need to know, and did not want to know, a word for doing anything in the presence of the enemy other than to advance upon and destroy him. This attitude also was central to the Russian Army’s organizational identity.

Suvorov goes to the gemba

Lord Byron’s epic poem Don Juan places the protagonist at the siege of Ismail (1790), where he meets Suvorov. Byron dismisses Suvorov’s success secret, which is right in front of him in plain view, as a waste of time.

Glory began to dawn with due sublimity,
While Souvaroff, determined to obtain it,
Was teaching his recruits to use the bayonet.

It is an actual fact, that he, commander
In chief, in proper person deign’d to drill
The awkward squad, and could afford to squander
His time, a corporal’s duty to fulfil:

The officers of that era would no more handle a musket and a bayonet than a land-owning gentleman would touch a mechanic’s tool, for a musket was an enlisted man’s weapon, and instruction in its use was delegated to sergeants and corporals. When Suvorov himself taught recruits basic military drills, however, he conveyed two unambiguous messages to his entire army:
1. Training is the most important thing we do in this army.
2. The musket, and the soldier who uses it, are the most important parts of this army.

This is why the previously reluctant Russian serf, who would have ordinarily preferred to be anywhere but the Russian Army, felt important for the first time in his life and wanted to be nowhere else than the Russian Army. The investment in training told the enlisted soldier that he was not a pawn to be thrown away in combat, but rather a valuable asset whose existence was to be preserved, if possible, at the expense of the enemy. The training instilled in soldiers the confidence that they could, by working as a team, defeat anybody ranging from skilled Turkish Janissaries, highly motivated and nationalistic Frenchmen (a new idea born of the American and then the French Revolutions), and even the dreaded Prussians of whom Suvorov, however, thought very little. The Prussian soldier was taught to let his officers do his thinking for him, while Suvorov expected his soldiers to exercise judgment and initiative if the situation required it of them.

This paid off during the campaign in the Alps, where enlisted soldiers improvised a bridge to replace one that the French had destroyed. Duct tape didn’t exist in 1799, so they used officer’s sashes to connect planks they had taken from a nearby barn. This was apparently done without direction from officers or from specialized engineering troops.

Suvorov Crossing the Devil’s Bridge in 1799, by Aleksei Danilovich Kivshenko (1851–1895). Two men on the left (Cossacks?) are bringing another plank to widen the bridge.

The investment in training endowed Russian soldiers with two special abilities that were not found in other armies. Diligent practice in marching enabled them to keep in step at close to four miles an hour when most other armies would begin to lose their formations if they attempted much more than two miles an hour. When your infantry can maneuver twice as fast as the enemy’s, the outcome is almost a foregone conclusion.

The Russians also learned the “attack through,” which meant charging through the enemy without even slowing down to engage in melee. Cavalry charges in which both sides rein in to exchange sword cuts are what we have seen in movies because the attack through is too dangerous to reenact even with harmless stage weapons; Suvorov sometimes lost men and horses when they practiced it. The cavalry charges in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, against computer-animated rather than live performers, were good depictions of what Suvorov’s cavalry actually did to those unlucky enough to be on the opposing side. The attackers did not stop to melee with anybody, but rode straight through the opposing lines without breaking stride for a moment. Suvorov’s infantry did the same thing with bayonets, and the results were not pretty.

Extensive training therefore instilled in Russian soldiers the confidence that they would always win, because no other army had their maneuverability or the attack through, and also the competence they needed to win. Competence is, of course, a prerequisite for what we now call empowerment. The result, again according to Byron’s Don Juan, was “Suwarrow now was conqueror,” although Byron obviously failed to connect this fact with his “waste of time” on enlisted men. Suvorov’s victory at Ismail also inspired Russia’s first national anthem, “Let the Thunder of Victory Sound.”

Organizational identity at Ford

Henry Ford adopted similar practices more than 100 years later, and his industries transformed our entire world by creating the 40-hour work week and the American middle class. His creation of what we now call the Toyota Production System is an important part of the story, but it is not the entire story. The organizational culture at Ford was such that, as with Suvorov’s army, the rank and file—hourly workers in Ford’s case—was encouraged and empowered to improve the system in which they worked. Forms of waste that most people take—and probably still take—for granted, drew immediate attention from the workers.

The phrase “it worried the men” (the workforce was predominantly male, although Ford paid women equally) applied to chips from machining operations that most shops would have overlooked as an inevitable aspect of manufacturing. Ford explained in My Life and Work that “The health of every organization depends on every member—whatever his place—feeling that everything that happens to come to his notice relating to the welfare of the business is his own job,” and added that most improvement ideas came not from management but rather the shop floor.

The hourly workers were very forthcoming with improvement ideas because Ford recognized that, “If an employer urges men to do their best, and the men learn after a while that their best does not bring any reward, then they naturally drop back into ‘getting by.’ But if they see the fruits of hard work in their pay envelope—proof that harder work means higher pay—then also they begin to learn that they are a part of the business, and that its success depends on them and their success depends on it.”

Ford, in other words, recognized his workforce as a relevant interested party whose needs and expectations he had to meet if he wanted its active, committed, and engaged participation.

Ford also made it clear that the shop floor, as opposed to the corner office, was the most important part of the organization. He spent so much time in gemba that unpaid bills and undeposited checks piled up on his desk, but he fortunately had a good accountant (James Couzens) to take care of the finances while he made the product.

The same went for other members of top management, the same people that ISO 9001:2015 now requires to demonstrate leadership. Ford’s production chief Charles Sorensen explained in his book My Forty Years With Ford (with Samuel T. Williamson, 1956) that, “These superintendents and their assistants were not of the sitdown type. I did not permit the top men to hold down a chair in an office. My formula for them was, ‘You’ve got to get around’.”

The bottom-line results, in the language of money, were unquestionable. Ford Motor Co. made the United States the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, noting that the United States surpassed the then-dominant United Kingdom during the first quarter of the 20th century. The Toyota Production System, which Taiichi Ohno openly said came from Ford, also combines lean manufacturing sciences with Japan’s traditional culture, which emphasizes teamwork.

This is a strong argument for organizations to get ahead of ISO 9004:2018 by looking for ways to make their own cultures and identities into overwhelming competitive advantages.

1. See also “Juran: A Lifetime of Quality.” Quality Digest, August 2002.

2. Sheps, Isaac. “Moving From Product Quality to Organization Quality to Achieve Sustained Success: The future of ISO 9004” 25th Annual ISO 9000 World Conference, 2017.

3. Sirota, David, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer. “Stop Demotivating Your Employees!” Harvard Business Review, July 2008. Results are based on a survey of 1.2 million employees at 52 (primarily) Fortune 1000 companies.

4. Longworth, Philip. The Art of Victory. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1965.


About The Author

William A. Levinson’s picture

William A. Levinson

William A. Levinson, P.E., FASQ, CQE, CMQOE, is the principal of Levinson Productivity Systems P.C. and the author of the book The Expanded and Annotated My Life and Work: Henry Ford’s Universal Code for World-Class Success (Productivity Press, 2013).


Organizational Cultural examples

Bill; you have done exemplary research on writing this article. Thank you. Your thesis is well stated and easy to follow. I appreciate the history you give of the ISO evolution from ability to make it through an audit to really building an organizational culture and system that meets customer needs in the long term. 

nice written article @ a gloomy situation

I really enjoyed reading this article. Most probably because I am in favor of this organizational culture. Though in practise may the things go wrong. Now that in many countries (also the one I live too) the economy is in recession and the people work long hours with less money ; how  on earth one could built a good team? 

Thank you