333 — Culture Change in Three Days?

My partner and I had an initial three day visit with a new client in the Midwest. The company’s workforce was overworked and demoralized. Turnover exceeded 80%. The managers wanted to improve morale and help new hires and temporary employees quickly become productive. Here is the story of a highly motivated group moving quickly to action.

Day One

The client is a 300-person division of a $2 billion annual sales retailer. The first meeting my partner and I had was Wednesday at 8:00 a.m. with the unit manager. We discussed work issues and what Meridian Group would do over the next three days. At 9:00 a.m., we attended the daily Operations Meeting where we met the managers and supervisors and discussed why we were there. Following the meeting, we spent the rest of the day in one-on-one interviews with department managers, establishing relationships and learning about the culture. That evening, my partner and I shared our interview notes with each other and developed our preliminary understanding of the culture.

Day Two

At 9:00 a.m. the following morning, Thursday, we attended the weekly Senior Staff Meeting. As we had done at the Operations Meeting, we discussed company culture — what it is and how to change it. But now, armed with information gathered from the interviews, we spoke from greater knowledge. We outlined to the managers the basics of culture change:

“Think of culture as a circle. The bottom is the operations half, WHAT we do, the hardware, systems, controls, production, and profits. On the top is the human half-HOW we do operations. This includes communication, trust, relationships, involvement, and the meaning people give to management’s actions. Most companies have a well-developed bottom half, but their top half is underdeveloped. In most workplaces, what people do is largely outside of their direct control—driven by laws, technology, customers, markets, and financial constraints. Fortunately, culture flows mostly from how we do our work. We have almost total control over this. Developing the company culture means getting the two halves in balance-paying attention to the messages we convey in how we do things.”

First Decide Where to Go

Then, we asked each of them, “Think of a work situation where you felt involved and motivated. What were the qualities of that workplace?” In summary they said, it’s a situation where:

  • I am recognized.
  • There is camaraderie.
  • I get honest feedback.
  • I get support from management.
  • I am trusted — give and take on ideas.
  • There is respect from the top down—not fear.
  • Expectations are in line. We know the goal and what to do.
  • People help each other — teamwork.
  • I feel I am a part of something bigger.
  • I receive mentoring and training.
  • There is pride in accomplishments.
  • I feel trust.
  • That I am taken care of by leaders.

We titled that list “What we want more of here at work.”

Then Decide What to Do — Action

We then asked, “What opportunities happen every day that can reinforce these qualities?” They said:

  • Everything every day.
  • How we manage staffing, retention and training.
  • Daily interactions with associates — more balanced.
  • Talk one-on-one with new hires.
  • When people do it right — recognize it.
  • New people at the start of the shift — introduce them.
  • Find out something personal about a low performer and encourage them.
  • Rotations, cross training.
  • Talk with smaller, nine-person teams, not just the full shift.
  • Follow through on issues employees raise, involve them.
  • The new production process, involve people.

Almost everyone committed to doing something that same day and to talk about what they did at the Friday morning Operations Meeting.

Day Three

There were five people from the Staff Meeting at the Operations Meeting. They had each done something:

  • One had conversations with several people he didn’t normally talk with.
  • Two brought their teams together to get their ideas on proposed procedures.
  • Two started to meet each day with a different team member—”Quality time.”

The operations manager was as impressed as I was. He asked if this “people side” discussion should be a permanent part of the daily operations meeting. They all agreed. The Operations Manager reminded them that small steps were best steps.

The Future

Large trees from little acorns grow. As these managers continue their attention to the top half of the culture it won’t be long before morale and productivity will improve and turnover will cease to be a problem. The managers can then tackle the broader system issues that led to the present crisis.

This was the fastest move to action I had ever experienced. I could tell that the managers were as pleased as I was. I looked forward to our next site visit to see what had developed and to plan with the managers the long-range change process.

cc 333 — vanhoadoanhnghiep