The Organizational Culture that Enables Productive Change – Professional Growth Systems

The Organizational Culture that Enables Productive Change

This is our last post in a series of posts on systems and policies, how to implement them, revise them and communicate the changes. For this post, we touch on a few of the keys in the culture of an organization that make all this system and policy work possible. The following post is from Bill, covering an experience he had recently that wowed him.  And it was made possible through a strong organizational culture.

Among the challenges leaders face on developing both the organization and its individual staff members to their full potential is developing a sense of ownership for the condition of the organization in everyone – from the team in the C-suite through to the front line.

I recently witnessed success in this worthy quest when sitting in on a reporting out session of improvement teams at the renowned Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle.  First, it was not possible from body language or communications to determine who was a manager and who was on the front line in the session.  The sense of democracy and empowerment of the front line was dramatic, indeed.  Secondly, when managers did introduce themselves they stated their role to be “problem framers” vs. problem solvers.

There are two legs of the journey to achieve a culture of such empowerment.  The first leg is instilling in all staff a responsibility to observe, define and communicate that a sub-standard condition exists.  In its extreme form, we refer to this as whistle blowing.  But, to achieve a high performing organization, communicating sub-standard conditions should be a normal part of the culture, occurring over the smallest of matters, and it should be expected and encouraged.

organizational cultureTo achieve this, there must first be understanding and support of a set of standards on how the organization performs. These standards include the systems and policies we wrote about earlier in this series.  Through data, sound systems and clear policies, employees are able to compare what they see with what should be.  Then, there must be a culture of expectation and appreciation for pointing out any deficiency that permeates throughout the organization.

The challenge here is that every sub-standard condition represents a failure of someone or something.  We all experienced in our lives as children abhorring the sibling or classmate that was a “tattletale”.  We considered it a betrayal.  Therefore, to make pointing out deficiencies work in an organization, the culture has to be characterized as guilt free.  It really doesn’t matter who or what is it fault, it only matters that it gets corrected.

To make this so, everyone has to be committed to excellence and getting better personally.  So at Virginia Mason, the organization is totally focused on the patient, and the patient is the final arbiter as to whether standards are satisfactory and have been met. That singular and uniform focus for all employees makes it work.

The second leg to achieve a culture of empowerment involves instilling a responsibility to define and communicate a solution. That is, reversing the norm of taking problems to management for solution. The tools for this are covered in the most recent two posts in our series – the Completed Staff Work to communicate potential solutions to leadership and the Change Communication to pass the finalized solution on to all those impacted.

We recommend that organizations establish a policy that asks all staff to be on the lookout for sub-standard conditions and then to define alternatives and a recommended solution.  Doing so spreads ownership of problem solving and gets proposed solutions from those who are closest to the work. And it removes guilt and shame from problems that occur.  They simply become glitches to be resolved using tools that are familiar and encouraged.

Establishing clear systems and policies, and the tools to make improvements to them, then encouraging the use of the tools, is essential to creating a culture of empowerment. Making the tools readily available and communicating  your appreciation for use by staff, demonstrates that you value everyone’s commitment to improving performance, and you begin building a strong culture of improvement.

For many in the company, this practice will be a huge shift.  This is well beyond the anonymous suggestion box or participation on an improvement team.  At its core, this is about instilling in everyone a responsibility to improve performance and brighten the future.  Getting there may be long and slow, but it is well worth it.

With this post from Bill, we wrap up our series on systems and policies.  If you have questions or are interested in seeing a series on a different topic, drop us an email. We welcome your thoughts!