Final Thought: The Time to Improve Culture Is Yesterday

EP Editorial Staff | March 13, 2017

W. Edwards Deming noted that it isn’t necessary to change. Survival isn’t mandatory.

By Dr. Klaus M. Blache, Univ. of Tennessee, Reliability & Maintainability Center

Just about every survey on reasons for large implementation failure or roadblocks to business excellence links back to improving the organizational culture. My own survey of several hundred companies resulted in similar results. The top two responses to the question on how to best attain future ROI (return on investment) were “leadership” and “engaged workforce (buy-in).” The good news is both are attainable. The bad news is that, 30 years ago, a similar survey identified the same two opportunities.

Understanding culture

Companies understand that organizational culture is the key to a winning organization, yet for many reasons it’s difficult to implement. The reasons for failure are many. Among them:

• insufficient urgency (reason to change)

• leaders not “walking the talk”

• fear of outcome (might lose my job)

• lack of communication (to all levels)

• clear vision with doable first steps

• too much resistance (not clearing roadblocks before getting started)

• assuring there is sufficient management support in key areas of all departments.

According to Business Dictionary (, organizational culture (which is also known as corporate culture) “includes an organization’s expectations, experiences, philosophy, and values that hold it together, and is expressed in its self-image, inner workings, interactions with the outside world, and future expectations. It is based on shared attitudes, beliefs, customs, and written and unwritten rules that have been developed over time and are considered valid. . . It affects the organization’s productivity and performance, and provides guidelines on customer care and service, product quality and safety, attendance and punctuality, and concern for the environment.”

I personally like this simpler definition: “Culture is what employees do when nobody is watching.” It’s about knowing what to do (standardized work) and having the skills to do it (capability). These attributes are what most employees are trained on. What’s typically missing is workforce engagement (willingness).

In his book Good to Great (Harper Business, New York, 2001), author Jim Collins wrote, “All companies have a culture, some companies have discipline, but few companies have a culture of discipline. When you have disciplined people, you don’t need hierarchy. When you have disciplined thought, you don’t need bureaucracy. When you have disciplined action, you don’t need excessive controls.” With a culture of discipline, where people know what to do and are capable of and willing to do it, great performance is a natural outcome.

W. Edwards Deming noted that it isn’t necessary to change. Survival isn’t mandatory.

W. Edwards Deming noted that it isn’t necessary to change. Survival isn’t mandatory.

Changing culture

A change-implementation process is critical to the success of any large project or process change. Assess your readiness for change before starting. As a minimum, perform a “force-field analysis” to identify the roadblocks and start removing them before the change effort starts. Doing so will provide a visual and numerical framework of workplace forces (that help or hinder a desired goal) to assess your readiness for change.

All sequence-of-implementation models for lean, RCM (Reliability Centered Maintenance), and TPM (Total Productive Maintenance) include “organizational culture” as a foundational element. This, in turn, calls for implementing such things as 5S and standardized work to enable Lean, RCM, and TPM, and other strategies. My research shows the companies that fully implement 5S (which requires a culture of discipline) have twice the likelihood of being successful in lean manufacturing.

In the words of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, The Deming Institute (, however, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” Organizational culture goes hand in hand with implementation of best practices. It’s not surprising that the top-quartile-performing facilities also have the best cultures.

“Change” is an action word. If you’re not yet working on organizational culture and engaging your workforce, you are already behind. 

Based in Knoxville, Klaus M. Blache is director of the Reliability & Maintainability Center at the Univ. of Tennessee, and a research professor in the College of Engineering. Contact him at




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