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Basic Business Cents: Culture eats strategic plans for lunch every time!

By Lou Schultz

What is this thing called organizational cultural and why is it important to you? Good question; one that we all know is critical to success of an organization but is difficult to describe and influence.

Webster describes culture as, “(a) development, improvement or refinement of the intellect, emotions, interests, manners, and taste, (b) the result of this: refined ways of thinking, talking, and acting.” Organization is defined as “a body of persons organized for some specific purpose”. Not a lot of help so far but let us explore further.

We want a group of dedicated employees working together for the common good of the system or organization. Sounds good but can it be created or modified?

Like it or not, all organizations have an organizational culture. It may be as desired but it may not. Some organizations are a collection of fiefdoms with departments competing with each other for recognition, funds, and assignments. Individuals may be competing with each other for promotions, salary increases, bonuses, recognition, offices, and assignments. Even top executives may be competing with the record of the previous top executive.

This competition and jockeying for position can lead to hoarding of information, which prevents others from doing their job as needed. It can lead to back-biting, sub-optimizing of the processes and systems, and demoralization.

What we want and need is a team working together to achieve the best possible result. We want the workforce to have pride in their work, enjoy their workdays, always strive to learn and improve, pleasant with each other, customers and suppliers, and focused on achieving the Aim of the organization.

Experience has shown the teaching of tools and methods will not endure unless there is a sustaining improvement culture of the organization that is developed and nurtured. To do this, we:

1. Align employees to the Aim and Strategy of the organization. It needs to be communicated to all employees, teams identified to lead efforts on the strategic initiatives, measured, and progress communicated monthly.

2. Guide behavior within the organization. Develop a standard of desired behavioral guidelines and communicate to all employees, and again monitor progress on a regular basis. Semi-annual surveys of employees can be conducted to provide an opportunity to report on observations on behavior consistent with the guidelines.

3. Build continuous improvement competency in all employees. Providing training on process improvement, employ data based analysis and decision making, and lead by example. Emphasize process and not people; in other words, fix the problems and not the blame.

4. Provide opportunities for intrinsic motivation. Effective motivation has to come from within the individual; extrinsic motivation attempts are rarely helpful and may even backfire. Especially beware of financial rewards. Enable the employees by providing education and training to allow them to learn and grow.

5. Empower the employees by delegating authority to improve work processes. Allow the workers more of a sense of satisfaction in their work by knowing they are improving the way they do things. And, don’t forget to communicate and celebrate success.

Management must model the way! All of the above will accomplish nothing if employees observe management with contrary behavior.

Dr. Rupp was right, culture can be a powerful negative force but it can also be a tremendous force for the success of the organization. As with anything else in the organization, it must be developed, improved, and nurtured.

Bill Rupp, MD & CEO, and Luther Midelfort, Mayo Health System, contributed to this column.