Facing Cultural Barriers by Leaders to Strengthen a Culture of Quality

This is a guest post by Luciana Paulise, the founder of Biztorming Training & Consulting. She is a speaker, author, and examiner for the National Quality Award and Team Excellence Award in Argentina.  She is also a columnist for Infobae, Destino Negocio, and a blogger for ASQ Influential Voices.  You can visit Luciana’s blog at: http://www.biztorming.com.ar/en/news.

Something was not going well at an organization we’ll call Company ABC, a small business within the automotive industry in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Some improvements were being made, many procedures were being followed, and employees were adopting new control processes.

Still, turnover was high, as well as frustration with certain processes that had not shown any improvements at all—while profitability was decreasing. Managers said that line employees were the problem; they were generating issues and not solving them. On the other side, employees were convinced the problem was in the communication channel to top management.

Even though it was a small business, communication from the bottom up was as difficult as in a larger corporation. The owners were asking for feedback on issues, but they were not providing ways to actually receiving the feedback. E-mails to leaders were not being replied to, approvals took longer than expected, and meetings were almost impossible to schedule.

What went wrong in this organization? How could managers and employees bring issues forward as required by a quality culture? How could they strengthen the culture of quality in this environment? What were the main barriers?

Experts says that the employees’ behavior is based on company culture, but what is organizational culture, exactly? As per Wikipedia, “Culture includes the organization’s vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits.” But who determines these factors in organizations so as to define the culture?

Usually top management defines which habits or behaviors are right by rewarding or punishing them. Therefore, company culture is modeled upon top management behavior.

That was my “a-ha” moment. The main cultural barrier to making this company a better place was actually the top management. They thought the problem in the organization was their people, but they had not considered themselves as part of the problem. They were not “walking the talk.” And people were noticing it.

Then I recalled Gandhi’s quote: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Leaders needed to take the first step, and needed to be trained to do so. So now the question was, how best to train them?

Edwards Deming developed a leadership model that could be really useful here to train the top. The “System of profound knowledge” that he introduced in his last book, The New Economics, has four interrelated areas: appreciation for a system, knowledge of variation, theory of knowledge, and psychology. Managers were probably not going to get this theory easily, but an analogy could help.

I compared the four areas with four human types of intelligence, so that leaders could understand that they needed to manage their behavior in an integral way so as to solve all the problems at the same time:

  1. Spiritual: understanding the company in a holistic way, as a system, is appreciating the business as a network of interdependent components that work together to accomplish the same aim. These components includes planning, context, competition, processes, shareholders, customers, suppliers, employees, the community, and the environment. Like an orchestra, it’s not enough to have great players. They need to play well together. Leadership needs to focus on all the parts that affect the organization and how they work. The leaders wanted their middle managers to work together, but they didn’t have common objectives, so each of them just focused on their part of the game.
  2. Intellectual: In any business there are always variations, like defects, errors, and delays. Leaders have to focus on understanding these variations. Are they caused by the system or by the employees? Usually employees are blamed for the errors, but 95% of them are really caused by the company system. Distinguishing the difference between variations by using data and statistical methods, as well as understanding its causes, is key to management’s ability to properly remove barriers to profitability. At company ABC in this case study, leaders were focused on the people, while many delays were due to late approvals, lack of the right tools, and lack of training, which the people (i.e. employees) couldn’t handle.
  3. Physical: Leaders assert opinions as facts based on hunches, theories, or beliefs, but they don’t always test those opinions against the data before making a decision. Leadership needs to focus on contrasting their ideas with real data from the operations. The automotive shop started to use daily physical scorecards on the walls to capture and communicate real performance numbers, so that leaders and operators could act on them together.
  4. Emotional: Finally, in order to get real data from the operations, leaders need to work with their people. The problem is that people perform based on how they feel. They are primarily motivated by intrinsic needs, including respect and working with others to achieve common goals, in contrast to simply being motivated by monetary reward. So leadership has to focus on understanding and respecting people so that they can all work together to solve issues. One of the managers used to push a lot on his employees because his monthly payment was based on performance. When his salary was moved to a flat rate, he started to work much better with his team, they all were motivated and happy at work.  Turnover decreased sharply.

So my “a-ha” moment in regards to strengthening a culture of quality was that leaders need to change their behavior first if they want to change the entire company culture—and they have to do it through a systemic model considering four types of intelligence.

What about your company? How is leadership helping to develop a quality culture?

11 thoughts on “Facing Cultural Barriers by Leaders to Strengthen a Culture of Quality”

  1. I agree that the key to culture change does lie with the management team. The secret to success is having a process for changing the beliefs and behaviors of the management team. Management’s beliefs and behaviors 1) determine if the culture is proactive or reactive and 2) create organizational barriers that hide profit potential, divide people and prevent change. If you want to make more money and change faster, these barriers must be removed and new management choices must be made.

    This work starts with raised awareness about management perspectives and organizational barriers linked to profit, culture and change. Once management understands that they can “choose” new actions that remove these barriers, they can release the organization’s potential to maximize profit and quality without investing in new equipment or systems.

  2. I want to include the following to think and impact:
    “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things” Peter Drucker.
    “Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success. Leadership determines weather the ladder is learning against the right wall” – Steven Covey
    The dynamic leader is one who leads by an example all the time to listen, flexible, leads with respect and engae the right people in an organization to sustain continious improvements – its a life long learning”. Ms.Luciana Paulise’s article on culture of quality is informative.

  3. Hi Luciana, I am a professional from Brazil ans I suppose the reality faced in Argentina is as similar as here as well. Initiatives like Lean and six Sigma has more effort into the operational level than should in the Tactical. Here leaders do not truly get involved in daily activities on the fab. The great mass of owners come from Family Business where they are really good in what they do but they have not paid too much attention in Management Issues. Thus, like in Argentina we have to put much more attention on people, making them our most valuable asset in the enterprise. I my opinion it is the only way to become more productive, Through people we will certainly develop our countries as a whole.

    1. I agree with your comment. People is the most important asset and when managers don’t pay attention to them, organizations fail for sure.

      Most importantly, managers need to empower their employees, so they feel that they are part of a big project to improve the organization, not only a person who gets a monthly check for doing something he has been ask to do or hire for.

  4. Amen. One thing to add is that former management also casts a huge shadow. I used to work for a company where it was clear that most people over the age of 55 were still, in their minds, working for “Edgar”, and I found that one of the quickest ways to get a lot done was to convinced them that I was doing things the way “Edgar” did.

    And the quickest way to figure this out was to quietly take my cup of coffee out to the smoker’s area and listen. Some guys will tell you everything you need to know when they’ve got a cancer stick in their mouth.

  5. Luciana,
    Congratulations! This is a great comparison bringing in the human component and I would hope if he were alive, W. E. Deming would agree so. For so many people, it is hard to see the human element. Your reference to Ghandi and change is also dead on. In my opinion, leaders need to better understand what change is and how to manage and lead change. Everything they have asked you to do is to help them change and they need to become their own change experts in addition to your recommendations. Leading and managing change are not the same as just talking about it or wanting it. The culture element is always a little confusing for me because I worry organizations think in terms that if I fix the culture, I have fixed the problem. Isnt’ is really the behaviour that comes from the culture they ultimately want to fix?

  6. Unquestionably believe that which you said. Your favorite reason seemed to be on the net the easiest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I certainly get irked while people consider worries that they just do not know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top as well as defined out the whole thing without having side effect , people could take a signal. Will probably be back to get more. Thanks

  7. I am completely agree with the ideas shown in your case study. I have worked in places where quality culture is low and people don’t feel motivated or encouraged to work well. On the other hand, there are places like the one I am working for where leaders make the employees feel that they are important by having them be involved in the pocesses for moving the organization to the top.

    I work in a university and one of the strategies the leaders employ there is to communicate constantly with the professors by letting them know on calls for research papers from other educational institutions, congresses, seminars, scholarships, etc. By participating in these different events the organization has better employees and gets points for moving up.

    We also have the opportunity to organize seminars related to the needs of the institution. First we identify the problem, we apply surveys, and do some literature review on the issue. With all these information we prepare a proposal to the authorities. As a result, we become active members of the institution.

    I strongly believe that the place I work for motivate people to become leaders.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *