Where Is “Culture” Created?

The idea of a continuous improvement culture, a problem solving culture, a kaizen culture, has been with us for decades. Ultimately it is what everyone says they want to create. Yet creating that culture remains elusive for all but a few.

I have noticed that, generally, when people describe the culture they are trying to create they do so in terms of what people do.

  • Leaders support the changes.
  • Team members take initiative.
  • People “see waste and eliminate it.”
  • People engage in problem solving.
  • Team members are fully engaged in improving their own work.

All of these things are true, but they miss the mark.

They are all the actions of individuals, sometimes interacting with a process.

But what is “culture?”

I would contend that “culture” is composed of the norms and rituals of how people interact with each other.

For example, prolonged direct eye contact (“staring”) is rude in some cultures, but not in others. Cultural norms define how subordinates interact with their bosses, where people sit, whether they bow or shake hands when they meet. Cultural norms define how problems are brought up – by whom and to whom – or if they are brought up at all. In some cultures, “losing face” is a disaster, in others, openly blunt honesty is highly prized.

Within a company, of course, there are additional layers. In addition to the social norms of the society at large, there are rituals and norms about how people interact at work.

Therefore, I would contend that “culture” is something which emerges from the pattern of interactions between people.

Why is it important to understand this?

Because if we are trying to change the culture, we should not be focusing so much on individual behaviors as we are coaching those interactions.

In “Toyota Kata,” Mike Rother describes structured, practiced behaviors that are the building blocks of a culture of continuous improvement. Like kata in martial arts, more sophisticated moves are built up from these fundamentals. But if you really look at it, the behaviors he describes are actually interactions.

What this means is that if we are trying to coach toward change, we need to be simultaneously coaching at least two people at once. In each of these interactions there is a request or stimulus, and there is a response. Each has a specifically defined “way to do it.”

Stepping back a bit, if I look at Steve Spear’s “rules-in-use” from “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System” I see the same patterns. The rules actually define structure for how people and processes are interacting with one another in a way that drives continuous improvement.

Just a thought for the day.

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