Culture Eats Process for Lunch

Jeff Cole

Culture devours massive amounts of well-intended process change throughout corporate America leaving unaware teams scratching their heads as they stare in amazement at the smoking wreckage of what was anticipated to be a simple process improvement. Want to avoid chargrilled process change? Start with the basics, says Jeff Cole in this column from our archives. .

I vividly recall a meeting I attended in Atlanta around 1996. During a discussion of company efforts to improve quality, one of the managers said, "You know, culture eats process for lunch."

While I never ran into that person again, his statement stuck with me all these years. At the time, I knew immediately that he had street smarts—he "got it" when it came to managing process change and his sound bite captured it perfectly. Culture does indeed devour massive amounts of well-intended process change throughout corporate America. This leaves some unaware teams scratching their heads as they stare in amazement at the smoking wreckage of what was anticipated to be a simple process improvement.

How do we avoid that? It all starts with the basics.

I’ve always been partial to the definition of culture as the shared beliefs, behaviors and assumptions of an organization. Think of culture as a silent, raging river flowing through an organization. If you launch a process change going in the same direction as the culture, that culture will serve to propel your process change forward. However, if your process change is headed in the opposite direction, you can experience what I refer to as "cultural blowback"—where your well-meaning process change blows back in your face at 200 mph.

Avoiding cultural blowback is conceptually pretty simple. First you assess the consistency between the current culture and those cultural attributes required for your process change to work. If there is a great deal of overlap between the two cultures, you are in good shape. If not, some adjustment will be necessary. We’ll also take into account the strength of the current culture when determining our actions.

How does one assess the culture? Excellence guru Tom Peters once told me that he had a good handle on a company’s culture just by looking around the first 5-10 minutes he was there!

For our purposes though, we’ll need to develop an assessment instrument to uncover those shared beliefs, assumptions and behaviors. There are several tools out there. According to noted consultant and co-creator of the CultureScaipe assessment tool, Jay Fedora, "One reason for failure is often stated as ‘poor cultural fit’ or that the ‘culture needs to change.' Unfortunately at this juncture, the team often finds itself working with almost a complete lack of data to help in the analysis and problem solving. A simple cultural measurement process can provide useful data to aid in the team’s change management planning."


Once you have used such a tool to understand some of the attributes of your current and desired cultures, you will also want to look at the strength of the current culture—how deep, wide and raging is this cultural river flowing through the company?

Armed with this information, we can now take appropriate actions. Here are four scenarios you may encounter:

Cultural Consistency (Current vs. Desired) Strength of Current Culture Potential Actions
Little Overlap Strong Modify timing or objectives of the change, identify and change key attributes of the culture itself
Moderate—Good Overlap Strong Leverage the culture to propel the change forward
Little Overlap Weak Modify or strengthen the key cultural attributes that will support the change
Moderate—Good Overlap Weak Identify and place an emphasis on the attributes that will support the change

Case Study

In the early 1990s, the Midwestern firm I worked for acquired a data warehousing company in southern California. The cultures were polar opposites. The parent company: a suit-and-tie, multi-national, conservative, Fortune 100 firm with lots of red tape. The acquired firm: a shorts and sandals, flex time, fast moving organization that was started in the founder’s garage. Many large cultural disconnects existed. While it would have been easy for the parent firm to suck the soul right out of the smaller company, to their credit, they didn’t. Sure, there were bumps in the road. However, the parent firm was smart enough to see that part of the "magic" of the smaller firm getting the results they did lay in the shared beliefs, assumptions and behaviors of their people. By being sensitive to their culture, they successfully merged and over time grew into a new culture together to the point where that division became the parent firm’s leading unit!

Sometimes, the cultural issues aren’t readily apparent. They lay hidden in the corporate landscape. I call these "cultural landmines." One such cultural landmine occurred during a simple process change as part of another merger. The change: everybody in the acquired firm would exchange their existing ID badges for new ones with the parent firm’s name and logo. *click* Kaboom! They stepped squarely on a cultural landmine that took weeks to unravel. In the acquired firm, name badges for one particular unit were slightly different and in their culture that ID badge was really a badge of honor. Reporting to that unit was a big deal and people looked up to them. So by giving everyone the same generic ID card, they weren’t simply standardizing a process, they were effectively lowering the status of some personnel and messing with their identity. Fortunately, they resolved the matter albeit in a reactive manner.

Bottom line

Don’t underestimate the power of an organization’s culture. Food for thought as you serve-up your next process change.

Bon Appetit!

Editor's Note: First published May 2009.