You don’t have to spend very long talking to Quality Management professionals, Six Sigma Black Belts, Consultants, Business School lecturers, and the like, on subjects such as Six Sigma, Business Excellence and Continuous Improvement before the word Culture crops up; particularly if you are discussing the reasons for the relative success or failure of these initiatives. It is also usually agreed without too much debate that an organisation’s culture is of major importance in these initiatives and – most would say – Critical to Quality. If it is Critical to Quality then of course we should measure it. However, not only do most people put measurement of culture in the “too difficult” file but also there is very little agreement about what culture actually is.

In spending much of my time working with organisations on the development of high performance teams and their leaders, I have often worked alongside a number of quality management professionals and in particular, those who are involved in Six Sigma initiatives. Six Sigma is another case in point of course where there is considerable debate about just how you would define it. Some put the emphasis on things like Cost of Quality, others on unbeatable measures, many emphasise the value of arriving at a common measure throughout the business e.g. DPMO (Defects Per Million Opportunities) with almost as many different emphases as people that you talk to. What I have found though is that all of the serious Six Sigma exponents, those who have invested heavily in the training of Black Belts and who are taking the initiative right the way through their companies, is an understanding from the start that the people issues are critical. There is also a growing awareness that having tackled the measurement and training issues that to achieve the next breakthrough probably means that the culture has to receive even more attention.

What then is culture? More importantly, from the point of view of continuous improvement initiatives, can we agree a definition that allows us to measure the culture of the company and to arrive at a common language for culture across departments and divisions? If we can, then we may be in with a chance of measuring cultural change and also be able to measure our progress towards achieving alignment between our strategy and our culture.

Whether we align our strategy with our existing culture or seek to change our culture to fit our agreed strategic plans will depend on what view we take of culture.

One view might be described as the roots/external view. It says that culture comes from a variety of roots and external factors and is largely “unchangeable”. It is seen to be influenced by factors such as beliefs brought into the workplace by those from outside e.g. religious beliefs, family beliefs, combined with company lore passed down through the years and embedded in the values, behaviours and rituals that we meet as soon as we join and continue to learn throughout our time in the company. This view would say that culture can be changed only over long periods of time and in the short term we would do better to seek to modify people’s behaviour to fit the culture.

A second view, the internal/behavioural view, is that the culture is the behaviour of the company’s people. This view would say that the culture can be led and changed; indeed that it is often highly desirable to do so, even in the short term, when faced with the need for major change.

In reality there is probably some truth in both positions and indeed in the myriad of more detailed views which exist as sub-sets of these. Whichever view we take we need to understand behavioural change. For example, Schein (1985) defined culture as:

a pattern of basic assumptions – invented, discovered or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration – that has 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 these problems”

Although this fits more with the external/root view, he would not subscribe to the view that this meant culture is unchangeable; the way we perceive think and feel will have a marked effect on our behaviour. Perhaps a simpler working definition would be:

That set of attitudes, values and beliefs that you see being enacted on a day to day basis in the organisation”

or, more simply still,

The way things are done around here”

Understanding people’s behaviour is a necessary pre-requisite therefore whichever view we take of culture. The emphasis needs to be on action – what we do, our behaviour, that will deliver the results. For example, when we use the simple 3 Ps version of the EFQM Excellence model of People – Process – Performance, it is People acting on and in Processes, i.e. their behaviour, that will deliver the Performance. Some of the advantages of adopting this behavioural approach to the cultural issues of continuous improvement are:

· There are some well proven (reliable and valid) behavioural instruments around and we don’t need to re-invent the wheel

· Some excellent work has already been done in translating these across to the area of measuring culture

· The spin off benefits for individuals in the organisation are high (e.g. facilitates the individual change process, aids stress management, adds considerable value to the appraisal process, more satisfying working life)

· Common non-threatening language for comparing cultural issues across departments and divisions

· Strong links between people’s motivation, behaviour and consequent organisational performance

How do we use a behavioural approach? Watch this space – it will be the subject of another blog post shortly!

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