Cultural Barriers Companies Face When Trying to Strengthen a Culture of Quality

This is a guest post by James Lawther, who describes himself as a middle-aged middle-manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for multiple organizations, from supermarkets to tax collectors in a host of operational roles, including running the night shift for a frozen pea packing factory and doing operational research for a credit card company.

Based in the U.K., James is also an ASQ Influential Voice blogger and writes about quality issues at

I was once told that beliefs drive behavior. That seems to be a sensible assertion. There may be other factors–habit for example–but I can’t think of a stronger one. If you take that thought and add that culture is the sum of all the ways people behave in an organization, then it is easy to make the mental leap that beliefs also drive culture.
To change a culture you need to understand and change its beliefs.

What is a belief?
A belief is something that we think is true, even though we have no evidence or absolute proof of that fact.

There are lots of management beliefs that we think will drive a business forward. But if you dig a little deeper you will see they do the exact opposite.

Let me give you a handful of examples, a belief, an alternative view and a piece of evidence.

Have a read and ask yourself if these beliefs good for our organizations. Or is there enough evidence to support an alternative view?

Belief – We need short-term targets
If we have short-term targets we will strive to hit them. They keep us on the boil and give us management credibility. If we hit all our targets we will be an excellent business over the long term.
Alternative view – Short-term targets drive short termism. It is easy hit this quarter’s numbers by mortgaging next quarter. Repeatedly hitting short-term targets does little for long term improvement.

Does Jeff Bezos take a short-term view of Amazon’s performance?
Belief – We must have centers of excellence
If all our functions are excellent we will have an excellent business.
Alternative view – Striving for functional excellence quickly pits functions against each other. This just causes friction and rivalry. What is really important is how the functions work together, not individually. Functional excellence does little for teamwork.

Did inter-functional rivalry between defense agencies help the September 11 attacks?
Belief – Failure is bad
We must not fail. Failure is just another word for poor performance. No great business can allow poor performance. Failure is a sign of weakness.
Alternative view – The only way we really learn anything new is if we fail. The only way to learn how to ride a bike is to fall off one. It is easy to avoid failure – stick with want you know – but if you don’t try anything new, how will you ever learn or improve?

What did failure do for James Dyson?
Belief – We must manage the performance of our staff
If we have the best individuals then we will have the best organisation. We should actively “performance manage” our staff to make sure we get the best out of them.
Alternative view – performance management only ever results in fear or jealousy. People are either scared for their jobs or jealous of the bonuses awarded to “high performers.” Both of these emotions are hugely destructive. They do nothing at all for organizational improvement.

What did 10 years of performance management do for Microsoft?
Belief – Our people must be productive
The best way to maximize efficiency is to sweat the “human capital.” We must get the most possible out of our people.

Alternative view – If your staff are absolutely focused on their day job, you don’t give them any capacity to do anything else. Your staff are the people who are best placed to improve their work, they understand it best of all. Shouldn’t you give them the time to do that?

Where would Google be without 20% time?
Belief – We should use current best practice
We should incorporate the latest cutting-edge thinking into our business. If we don’t include it, then our competitors will.
Alternative view – if you constantly switch approaches and strategies you will never implement any of them well. Current best practice never lasts long. There is always a shiny new approach that is guaranteed results, until a better idea comes along. Success comes from sticking with an approach, not continually rolling out the latest approach.
Why are there so many different approaches to quality management?

Beliefs are insidious
They are everywhere, we take them for granted and they reinforce each other. How about adding the following to the list?
• Managers should direct – how about they support?
• We must incentivize our staff – do you need incentives?
• We need more leaders – how about fewer good ones?
• We must benchmark performance – wouldn’t your effort be better spent on improvement?
How many other beliefs could you add to the list?

The problem with beliefs
If you really want a quality culture, you have to challenge and change the incumbent belief system that is getting in the way.

Of course it isn’t that easy. The really tough – but hardly surprising – thing about beliefs is that we all have them and we are all blindsided by them. What about the beliefs I put forward? Are mine any more robust than the incumbent ones? What does the evidence suggest? Or perhaps a better question would be…

What do you believe?

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One Response to Cultural Barriers Companies Face When Trying to Strengthen a Culture of Quality

  1. Tameka says:

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