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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Delving Deeper: Levels of Culture

(Perspective 2 in a series of weekly perspectives on Building a Culture based on CPI principles)

Last week in Part 1 of this series on Building a Culture based on CPI principles, we introduced the concept of Your Culture is Your Brand.  This week we will define “culture” and critically analyze the significance of addressing cultures in the context of “levels.”   

Culture is everything.   Good culture= Zappos success.  Bad culture= Enron failure.  Good culture neglected= Toyota quality problems.  Do I have your attention now?

Defining Culture.  To practice what I preach, I attempt to start every kaizen event or enterprise-level project by defining the major term for the week in order to baseline foundational assumptions.  Predictably, a gap exists amongst team members. To define culture (and delve deeper), the guideline I use comes from my Sensei (John Allen of TSD) who had me study Edgar Schein:

“[Culture is] ... a pattern of shared basic assumptions (values, beliefs, norms) that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

As you look at the words in bold, the definition seems straightforward enough, but the rub comes in during the analysis.  Most people talk about culture in broad terms, knowing that it is important, good for success, a great goal to strive for, and requires a decade to develop.   That is ok, but those are superficial interpretations.   To truly undertake a culture change effort, one needs to analyze and differentiate the level in which the culture manifests itself, as it is crucial to creating and executing a successful change effort.  I cannot stress this enough. 

I’m a visual (and auditory) person, so let’s show the chart again to point out the different levels of culture:
1st Level – Artifacts.  Sees, Feels, Hears.  I am sure you’ve seen places where signs hang that say “Quality is Job#1” and “Think Safety 1st,” or you hear a certain type of music playing in the hallways, you see everyone wearing a certain style/type of clothing, or notice how everyone communicates to each other.  Can you make a good assumption about the real culture at this company?  It is like judging a book by its cover.  You can, but is it wise?  Would it be fair or smart to think a company was not innovative because their office layouts and their dress were stodgy?  That is what is meant by hard to decipher. 

2nd Level – Espoused Beliefs and Values.  This is straightforward and must not be misunderstood.  To be an espoused value or belief, it cannot solely be trumpeted by the CEO, but evolve by:

1.       Actual joint action on the belief/value by the group (not just the CEO)
2.       The proposed value/belief action must create real success in solving problems.
3.       Finally, it achieves social validation.  I.E. If you don’t comply, you become part of the “out” group (excommunicated).

Essentially, these are your company’s strategies, goals, and philosophies acted out.  However, there still can be some large areas of behavior still unexplained.  

3rd Level – Underlying Assumptions.  This is where actions stemming from company beliefs and values are taken for granted.  These assumptions are non-confrontable and non-debatable! 

Now, you can see why analyzing culture and developing change actions by understanding levels is so powerful.  Understanding culture at this level helps us understand what the true culture is and what we are up against.  Understanding at this level is priceless, but we seldom delve this deep. 

So, for an organization to learn something new in this realm (the deepest level of culture), requires us to resurrect, reexamine, and possibly change some of the more stable portions of our cognitive structure – How we think.   And that is the subject of Part 3 of this series:  Current way of thinking vs. a Continuous Process Improvement mindset.

P.S. Let me know and I will gladly work with you to share Edgar Schein’s book, Organizational Culture and Leadership.  Once you read it, it will change your thinking about culture. 

About the Author: Ernie Shishido is a Master Black Belt with the US Air Force’s Business Transformation Office with 29+ years of uniformed military service.  Ernie can be found on LinkedIn @ http://www.linkedin.com/in/ernieshishido or by email at er.shishido@gmail.com / ernest.shishido@pentagon.af.mil (until 10 Dec 2010).  

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