The immeasurable value of positive cultural change

Posted on 29 Sep 2022 by The Manufacturer

“This is how we've always done things in this place.” Sound familiar? Wherever you work in the vastness of the manufacturing value-chain, it’s something you will have heard at some point. 

It’s a dangerous sentence and a sure fire sign of a problem culture. 

The most difficult of changes

My last two columns for The Manufacturer have centred on digital transformation and the important role people play in making it a success. 

This week I’m bringing culture forward, which of all the things you can change in an organisation, is comfortably the most difficult. 

Anything less than 100% commitment to positive cultural change, that has a chance of sustaining itself over a long period, will lead to the ‘same old problems’. 

In fact, it’s all or nothing. Either do it and throw forth everything or do nothing but know nothing will change and results may worsen. 

By results I mean falling short with operating performance, customer satisfaction, employee morale and ultimately, financial objectives. 

On the flip side, if your company is performing well, there may be a nagging sense that higher levels can be reached. 

Higher levels of morale, improved digitisation, enhanced product knowledge – a refreshed focus. In systems thinking we call this a runaway loop or a reinforcing feedback.

An example of this is, the more machines and infrastructure you have, the more you can produce, more money you can make, reinvest some of the profits to increase your capacity and increase your throughput and so forth.

The front lines of macro economic trends impacting our world

The exploration and reinvention of cultural change within manufacturing companies has been at play since the industrial revolution. 

Manufacturers – and its people – are among the first to feel change. Whether it be changes to commodity price changes, new competition or trade agreements. 

This is why constant reflection of culture is required in the manufacturing world. Multiple changes, some big and some more subtle, happen on a daily basis. 

Best practices are a cultural component and paying close attention to them – continuous improvement, quality circles, time studies – can lead to higher quality products, team efficiency, flexibility and reliability and a more fluid yet functional value-chain. 

Whether they know it or not – they should – people working across the manufacturing value-chain are without doubt impacting the world we live in. 

Responsibility and pressures exist and ought to be embraced from the top down and bottom up. 

Aligning people, culture and processes is the only way we can successfully navigate the moving parts that ultimately place us under differing extremities of pressure. 

And it’s quite the hurdle to keep jumping over. And keep jumping you must as failure to do so will soon lead to being uncompetitive in a seriously tough industry. 

So, instead of enabling “that’s not my job” to be heard on the factory floor with frequency, let us think about how we can give birth to a more positive atmosphere. 

Defining culture

This is a long definition but worth reading and thinking about. 

Edgar Schein, renowned professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, defined culture as ‘the pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and have worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems’. 

Schein opened his 1984 ‘Coming to a New Awareness of Organizational Culture’ article with this. 

At Equitus we see culture as much more than broad aspirational statements. When people walk into your factories or offices, culture is more than what they see, hear or feel. 

Trust is what knits together the many aspects of a developing culture. 

And what affects the culture of a company is how leaders articulate vision, mission and values right down to the last member. 

If for example there is an aerospace company making F16 Fighter Aircraft, a collective approach to the exact mission must be known. 

The miller for example should be heard saying “I’m helping to make F16 Fighter Aircraft”. Other people, whether it falls in the design area, engineering, welding, should be saying the same. 

They should know and they should feel good about it. 

Working towards the same objective collectively is powerful. Bringing forward ways of visualising that bigger picture beyond workstations is what ignites it. 

Empowering people

I mentioned top down and bottom up earlier, which is a matter of trust and transparency. 

If we can dare to lead by empowering from the bottom up rewards can be plentiful. 

Leaders can start by truly finding out what people’s problems are. 

You can also ask what it is that is preventing them from being effective and then start to work together to minimise any inconveniences. 

So, rather than simply introducing new ways of doing things and imposing new tools, together find a starting point to improve matters together. 

By carrying out this simple exercise you have engaged properly with those around you and they will quite rightly feel valued. 

Next will come a willingness to do better. It might mean you allocate further resources to implement new ideas and methods that have come forward as a result of the engagement process. 

It’s amazing what you can learn by communicating consistently. You may learn how to engage with different people and the intricacies that make each tick. 

Most importantly, you will build much-needed trust. 

Looking forward collectively

With Edgar Schein’s cultural definition in mind we can see that there are a number of aspects that contribute to developing a happy, trusting and higher performance culture. 

The demands of the outside world will always exist, will exhibit a propensity to change dynamically with little notice – and impact the way the value-chain addresses them.

Of late there have been – and continue to be – significant challenges for our industry. 

Another essential ingredient that follows leading from the top and empowering from the bottom up is continuous improvement. 

Let’s say you have shown a genuine desire to set bold and daring visions, engaged honestly and openly with employees, established trust, improved processes and empowered your people. 

Next comes a reaction that, if reinforced and managed closely on a daily basis, will be inspiring. 

Dangerous phrases like ‘we have always done it this way’, ‘we don’t see a reason to change’ and ‘we don’t like change’, soon become things of the past. 

And that’s because people will be motivated to do better. They won’t always get it right, nor will you, but a shift in culture and therefore performance begins. 

What’s important to remember is that the train is never too far down the track – changes can be made culturally no matter how hard one thinks it might be.  And it’s not an area that can be neglected or put down the priority list. 

The Engineering team at Equitus has the ability to help companies with roll outs of digital transformation, based on specific requirements and advantages.  And we can also help with bringing the right culture forward. Get in touch with us today.

About the author

Raam Shankar, EquitusRaam Shankar, Founder and CEO, Equitus Design Engineering and Innovations