Improving culture with quality methods

Barb ClearyQuality methods can improve products, of course, but these methods apply as well to processes in any organization. But what about the company’s culture? Traditional approaches to improving quality may improve this as well.

A traditional maxim insists, “What can’t be measured, can’t be improved.” While this may certainly be true, it may also stand in the way of improvement in systems that don’t immediately seem to be measurable.

Take organizational culture, for example.

Since it’s hard to even put your finger on what “culture” is, it is easy to dismiss the possibility of improvement in a company culture. But wait a minute…there are in fact ways to break down—analyze—the system that creates culture, corresponding to those that apply to improvement in specific processes.

Using the traditional Plan-Do-Study-Act approach developed by Walter Shewhart, the culture of an organization can indeed be analyzed and improved.

The “Plan” stage involves defining the system as it stands. While control charts and other statistical tools may not be as useful here as they are in the improvement of a manufacturing process, other tools will generate data that is susceptible to improvement.

A survey of stakeholders can begin the process of defining the system and assessing the current situation. Those who live in the system, the ones who talk about the organization and its culture, can generate a list of quantifiable adjectives that suggest the values that seem clear in the culture. If employees and customers indicate “integrity” as a value, this evaluation is based on the interactions they have had with the organization over time, and their observations of behaviors that characterize managers and others. If a value such as “integrity” has been frequently recognized among definable values, it may not be the one that you choose to improve. Pat yourself on the back, perhaps, and look instead at the number of times a less-desirable adjective emerges. A histogram that reflects the number of times significant values are indicated in the survey will give a graphic demonstration of the relative significance of each value in the company’s culture.

But what if a judgment such as “risk-averse” emerges as a value? If your organization prides itself on conservative investment strategies, this may be a positive value, but if you want to encourage creativity and innovation, this may be something you want to improve.

Then what?

A survey has helped to define the system, and a histogram provides an illustration of values that stakeholders perceive in the organization. The next step is to focus on one value that can be improved, and develop a plan to improve only that value. It’s important to remember that no improvement process can tackle every possible improvement at once.

In analyzing ways to improve the perception of “risk-averse,” a team can use brainstorming to generate possible approaches to this value. The more refined practice of the Crawford slip method will undoubtedly bring possible solutions out of the woodwork, since participants in a brainstorming session may, after all, feel inhibited in a culture that is already risk-averse. An affinity diagram can help to sort ideas, and nominal group technique will narrow them down and help select one idea that a team considers viable.

Let’s say they narrow the ideas down to the suggestion of recognizing teams that come up with creative ways to expand sales.

Putting this suggestion into place represents the “Do” phase of the PDSA cycle. It is important to consider implementing it on a small basis, rather than company-wide, in the beginning. This is true of any improvement process, of course; by controlling the scope of the application, its impact can be more clearly analyzed. In the long run, it will be important to demonstrate to the entire organization that the steps taken in the small study can be applied more broadly, and they will represent a step in developing a positive organizational culture.

The “Study” phase of the PDSA cycle is critical to the improvement process. Once an approach has been put in place—stimulating creative ideas for sales, for example—it can be analyzed by looking at the impact that this approach has had on the perception of risk aversion in the organization (not, by the way, its impact on sales; we are, after all, considering ways to improve the culture of the organization).

An additional survey at this point can identify responses to the change that has been put into place, and data generated from this survey can be compared to the initial survey responses. The tools of analysis and problem solving that have been utilized are recognizable to others in the organization if they have established improvement teams for other processes.

And finally, if data suggests that the steps taken have generated improvement, these steps can be put into place on a wider scale, and the process can move to other areas that are related to stakeholders’ perception of culture. This is the “Act” phase of the cycle—one that invites returning to the process again and again to see continuous improvement throughout an organization.

While this example may seem to generate only modest improvement in an organization’s culture, it’s important to remember that elements of culture are established over a long period of time and are not easily undone—certainly not in sweeping change. But in the process of looking at a company value, teams have applied the tried-and-true tools that generate real, long-lasting change, while at the same time reflecting on the values that are important to them.

A side effect of an attempt to improve the culture of an organization is one that comes of team participation; team members feel empowered as contributing members of that organization.

And they may become less risk-averse while they’re at it.