Culture vultures

Posted on 1 Mar 2010 by The Manufacturer

Is management communication of a corporate culture and values to its workforce little more than a mantra? The evidence, says Colin Chinery, is both compelling and damning.

Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything. Mark Twain was jibbing about the weather, but for 21st century UK manufacturing the stricture serves the quality of culture transmission and empowerment of the workforce. Without effective communication you cannot lead, but too many executives ignore the importance of good communication and then wonder why things go wrong. And for the food & drink industry — like other sectors of UK manufacturing — performance and delivery are typically dire; the potentially sizeable benefits disregarded.

“I think effective communications and the transmission of values is missing from all but a handful of the very biggest organisations,” says Richard Bruce. “Those that are failing find it extremely hard because they are very lean, with the management team spending much of its time fire fighting.” Bruce heads the Hartington Group, a provider of business solutions to food and drink companies across the UK.

And he says that so long as someone assumes ownership, effective communication does not take up a lot of time. “People tend to concentrate on making decisions and very little time on communicating them. I agree with the guru who said you should spend half your time planning what to do and the other half communicating those plans to the stakeholders. The reality is most people don’t.” John Keighley, of supply chain consultants Crimson and Co, agrees. On a 0-10 score card for effective communication in the food & drink sector, he finds very few companies in the 7-10 bracket.

Among the key traits of failures he identifies:
• A top-down culture with minimal workforce empowerment;
• Very little motivational psychology;
• A culture focused on blame; and
• A workforce which feels undervalued, and hence lacks a sense of excitement.

“There’s a massive untapped amount of knowledge on the shop floor, but there are challenges. How do you collect it, filter, investigate and prioritise? It takes a very robust process to succeed in all this.” But when in place the rewards can be eye-catching.

Keighley cites his own engagement with one UK food manufacturer: “Their cultural change need was to encourage all their staff across six factories to challenge the operational status quo and encourage a ‘Can Do’ culture. “And by achieving this within the first 12 months, this company — with a £30m profit before we started — managed to add another £5m.” The few companies that are succeeding in this area fall into two categories, says Keighley: those that had been faced with the choice of acting or failing, and those that are led by visionaries.

It’s good to talk
Richard Bruce cites Justin King, C.E. of J Sainsbury.

King joined the company six years ago, seen as its last chance to win back market share and remain independent. King’s first break from the previous arms-length management culture was to rename the Sainsbury HQ ‘The Store Support Centre.’ “A small thing, perhaps, but psychologically it was a very important change in the way he wanted to communicate the relative importance of people at the centre with those working at the coal face in the stores. He was effectively turning the pyramid upside down,” says Bruce.

King then set about breaking down barriers and opening up the culture. Visiting stores he talks to everyone, gets their views, epitomising the culture that says everyone in the business is important in driving the business forward. “This is a model of good leadership and the effective transmission of values and ethos throughout an entire organisation.” Top-Down communication problems are compounded by a managerial generation and style immersed in MBAs and degrees, but with little comprehension of workforce realities, says Nina Dar. Dar is founder of Cheeky Monkey Business Solutions, a change management consultancy which places people at the heart of the connection of strategic vision, process and benefits delivery.

“These managers have all learnt the tools, roll out the portfolio — the company values, the vision, and so on — and they really believe they are engaging their staff.

There is probably more money spent now on engaging employees on that piece of work than ever before. Yet on a practical basis, employees feel more disenfranchised and disengaged than ever before.” One reason, says Dar, is a managerial generation expert only in management. “You might think that to be an expert in management you would be able to talk. And the problem with most organisations and senior teams is that they do not know how to talk. I like to put it this way; ‘Could you sit in a pub and tell me what your company is all about’? And they can’t do that. So there is this widening gap; they are not talking the same language. Yet if you consider an organisation as a machine, employee engagement is the oil.”

I operate, you fix
Heinz plant at Wigan is the largest food processing facility in Europe, making baked beans, soup, pasta and other products and producing its own cans. And here they are speaking in the same tongue. “The challenge is not actually driving change, but really sustaining it,” says Jaap Wilbers, vice president, supply chain. “And the only way we can do that is by getting all 1,400 people that work here behind what we’re doing, not a handful of people in the management team. We don’t want everyone else to leave their brains at the entrance when they come in.”

“A key part of this is increasing the sense of ownership among front line operators and getting rid of the ‘I operate, you fix’ mentality. The blame culture only starts to go when you see issues as shared problems or challenges instead of arguing over which department to allocate unplanned downtime to. It’s all about team-based ownership.” “In many ways, some manufacturers are focused on the today, and because of financial and other pressures they find it very hard to think of the longer term,” says Richard Bruce. “Short-termism, one of the great woes of much of British industry and commerce, ‘Rules OK’ in food manufacturing.” Ideally, says Bruce, change is achieved by example, “of getting people to try it in something simple, and then seeing the difference. But in many ways, the arrogance of management is still very apparent; the view that ‘our job is to manage, yours to press the buttons.’ That’s an enormous shame, since those at the coal face often have a much better idea of these issues because they are seeing the problems”.

Effective transmission and communication begins with a well-defined culture, says John Keighley. “Then it’s a process of education, and making the culture and values tangible and part of day to day business.

Employees must be given the opportunity to challenge bottom up, the performance and behaviour of everyone in line with the values. All this is a challenge that should not be under-estimated. But where I’ve seen it done well, it has had a dramatic effect on the performance of the business.”