“The culture of a company to me defines how excellent it will be, how helpful it will be, how ambitious it will be, how innovative it will be . . . And in my mind, [Apple] wouldn’t nearly be where it is today without [its] strong culture. It would not.” – Tim Cook, CEO, Apple, Inc.*
How would you describe your company’s culture? Would others describe it in the same way? Is it the type of culture you want the organization to have? How do you know?
Most leaders today appreciate the strong connection between culture and performance. Understanding the importance and actually doing something about it, however, are two different things. Culture is generally considered one of those softer issues that is difficult to change. Because of this, many leaders either ignore it or attempt to drive small, less formal adjustments hoping that things will change for the better.
It’s Still About Closing Gaps
One of the characteristics of lean thinking is that it is deliberate about identifying and closing gaps. It does not matter whether a gap is related to hard or soft issues – if it is something that interferes with the ability to achieve long-term objectives and, ultimately the vision, it needs to be addressed.
The first step to changing the culture is to clearly describe what you want the culture to be. This means defining the organization’s personality, and includes elements like values, practices, teamwork, leadership style, etc. It is important to be clear about what these elements look like – i.e., how you will know when you have them. As an example, if you want the culture to be one where people continually identify and solve problems, you may be looking for an environment where people have an investigative mindset, are trainable, and are able to work together to drive improvement. You may also want an environment where people are comfortable making problems visible.
Once the ideal culture is clearly defined, you will need to assess the current culture in terms of the ideal. In other words, determining the gap that needs to be addressed. It should be obvious that this step requires an open and honest look at the organization’s current culture. If the organization is not open about potential problems with its culture, there is little chance of driving sustained improvement.
After the cultural gaps are identified, the job becomes prioritizing and closing – or more realistically, shrinking – them. In the problem-solving example above, you may determine that the hiring process is lacking the ability to identify candidates with the right mindset before hiring, and that the people doing the screening and interviewing need to be trained to identify whether a candidate has problem-solving traits.
START THE EFFORT NOW
There is likely nothing more critical to the organization’s long-term success than its culture. Without a strong and focused culture that supports the company’s defined purpose, any success due to an innovative product, financial maneuver, or being in an industry with strong demand will not last. Strengthening and focusing the company’s culture is the only sure way to assure that the its success results from a deliberate and sustained effort rather than luck.
*From Apple’s Tim Cook Leads Different, Fortune Magazine, March 26, 2015