To Change Culture, Change the System

In John Seddon’s latest news letter there was a piece called It’s not the people, stupid.

Returning to the problem that managers think they should manage people, a reader sent me this.

A bank is training staff in “The One Best Customer Experience”. The big idea is that the best customer experience engages the 5 senses.

To engage the customer’s 5 senses staff are told to:

  • Shake the customer’s hand when they come in for an appointment and shake it as they leave (touch)
  • play the bank’s own radio station in the branch (sound)
  • make sure that all branches look exactly the same so the customer knows what to expect (sight)
  • make sure the aroma plug- in is topped up and working (smell)
  • and ask whether the customer drinks tea or coffee and have a cup ready for them when they arrive for an appointment (taste)

You couldn’t make it up.

If only the leaders knew the futility of this; in Deming’s terms it’s working on the 5%.

I wonder how much money they are wasting doing so.

This is unfortunately all too common in our organisations. Leaders believe that to change culture, and improve service, can all be done by training their staff. They think that a breakthrough in knowledge is going to lead to a breakthrough in behaviour.

Another example is when many UK banks sent all front-line staff off to hotels to be “trained”, and then told to go back to their branches and “Love the customers“.

When the staff got back to their branches, and the customer came in with a request or a problem, they thought “Thats great, I can use my new training, they told me I could on the training course”.

BUT they needed the branch manager to give them authority, they needed to work together with their manager on solving problems, they needed their manager to talk to head office etc

What reaction do you think they got from their managers? “No, no, no! You do what I tell you to do” or “I cant change what you want, my hands are tied”.

Now what do you think happened? Morale got worse, not better, service got worse, not better.

Its amazing how much money is spent on these kind of training programmes, think how much it cost that bank to train all of their front-line people.
Yet leaders are happy to do it. Why? Because it sounds plausible.

If a consultant turns up and says, “Would you like your people to learn how to love your customer?” which leader is going to say no?

But as Peter Sholtes says

“Changing the system, will change what people do. Changing what people do, will NOT change the system.”

Deming studied how much variation in performance was down to the worker, or down to the organisational “system”, that people work within.

He (and Juran) found the majority of possibilities for improvement are in the organisational “system” (95%) with the remainder with the worker (5%).

As Deming said

“A bad system, will defeat a good person, every time.”

This is very easy to prove. Deming did so in his famous Red Bead Experiment. You can see a video of the Red Bead Experiment here.

If you want to test this out yourself go to any area that deals directly with customers and listen to customer demands. As customers complain about the organisation’s failure to do something, or do something right, look to see if this is down to the worker talking to the customer, or the cause is elsewhere. The majority will be caused elsewhere.

The workers themselves know this is the case. I once conducted the above mentioned demand experiment in a call center. The agents were surrounded by posters informing them to “Do it right first time” and to “Do your best”. The problem with the latter is that people already are.

When at the call center I spoke to one agent who expressed his frustrations at being unable to fix something that was caused elsewhere in the system:

It’s like hearing a baby crying in a locked room, and I don’t have the key.

In our organisations we spend a lot of our time working on the 5% using training, team building, away days, 1-2-1s, appraisals etc  Doesn’t it make more sense to work on the 95% ?

Even when leaders recognise it’s the system that hinders performance, they still believe that this too can be solved by training. Here is a great story by Russell Ackoff on the dangers of this kind of thinking. You can easily replace the words Systems Thinking with your favourite (or current) change programme e.g. Lean, Six Sigma, Agile, TQM, ISO 9000 etc

A number of years ago when I was working on a project for a major automotive manufacturing company, the Executive Vice President asked me if I would give a two-day course on systems thinking to the company’s top 200 managers and executives. I was delighted.

He said he wanted to restrict classes to 20 so that there would be plenty of discussion.

He had the following plan: four sessions of junior vice presidents, three of intermediate level vice presidents, two of senior vice presidents, and finally one of the executive office. The sessions were to be conduct from the lower level up.

At the end of the first session to junior vice presidents one said, “This stuff is great. I would love to use it but you are talking to the wrong people. I can’t introduce it without the approval of my boss. Are you going to get a chance to present it to him?”

I told I would in one of the later courses. He assured me he would hit his boss for approval as he came out of his session. In each of the first four sessions of junior vice presidents the same issue was raised.

In the first group on the second tier, with intermediate level vice presidents, the same issue was raised. I was told they also wanted to introduce systems thinking but could not do so without their bosses’ approval. Again I told them their bosses would eventually be exposed to the same ideas. In each of the three sessions at this level the same issue was raised.

In the two sessions involving senior vice presidents the same issue was raised. They asked if I would have a chance to present the material to the CEO and his executive committee. I said I would. I could hardly wait to hear what the CEO would say.

At the end of the session which he attended he said, “This stuff is great. I would love to use it. But I can’t do it with the approval and support of my subordinates. Are you going to get a chance to present it to them?”

This was a typical organisation, one in which the main operating principle was “Cover your ass.” Application of this principle produced a management that tried to minimise its responsibility and accountability.

The result was a paralyzed organization, one that almost never initiated change of any kind let alone innovation. It made changes only when a competitor made it necessary for it to do so.

When we have training classes that tell people what to do. That’s not going to do it. Humans will be filtering what is being taught through their belief systems. That’s why most cultural training fails.

Deming learned it’s not a problem of the people it’s a problem of the system that people work within. He found that if you want to change behaviour, then you need to change the system, and change management thinking that creates it. Doing so, culture change is then free.

So what is a better method? Well the starting point is a method that involves the initial ‘un-learning’ of what leaders think they know, to enable them to ‘see’ and reflect on their own system. This can’t be done in an office, or in a training room, it can only be done in the work, where the work occurs.

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4 thoughts on “To Change Culture, Change the System

  1. Pingback: Management Improvement Carnival #134 » Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog

  2. Great to see discussion of ‘system first…culture later’. My master’s dissertation was on the sub-cultures that professional groups brought to the workplace; one of the observations was that these sub-cultures were linked to historical practice: the systems the professions built over time lead to shared assumptions about practice and behaviour.
    I had long seen this working itself out in highly procedural organisations: no matter what changes were made to the ‘soft’ side of the work environment, the same forms had to be filled, the same steps utaken, the same approvals given…so; no change: behaviour, and the shared assumptions that create culture was dominated by ‘what had to be done’ day in day out, to get on with the job.

  3. Pingback: Focus the change on the situation, not people | c2refleXions – Chris Chan's Blog

  4. Pingback: Intervention on People Issues is a Red Herring « Think Different

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