Culture eats strategy – and it will eat your new processes too

If you work on enough corporate change programmes, before too long you will encounter someone who believes that process improvement is the answer to everything. Meg Peppin has just met one:

Oh the desire to manage the human side out of the equation.   I arrived one day to find a senior manager fuming. She had been at a systems thinking meeting where the culture change – which is what the staff had called the work – had been dismissed   “Culture doesn’t matter  if the processes are right.”  Oh – really?   I sigh.

It is understandable that people should take such a stance. Simplicity and repeatability make for greater efficiency. Designing out complexity makes sense. The trouble is, in service organisations, designing out complexity all too often means designing out the people.

Most of the techniques used in process improvement come from manufacturing and they have been very effective in reducing manufacturing firms’ costs. But service processes differ from those in manufacturing in that the customer is actually part of the process. People are unpredictable. Their behaviour and their requirements will always be slightly different in each case. While a process might look the same on paper, it is never quite the same for each customer. It will vary each time depending on how the customer interacts with the service provider. Service processes, therefore, are rarely as controllable and predictable as manufacturing ones.

Take, for example, something as simple as checking a patient into hospital. The process steps will be the same each time but the patients will be very different. The calm well-informed person can be processed relatively quickly. The distressed patient with poor English will take much longer. That neat box marked “Admit Patient” could take anything from a few minutes in some cases to an hour in others.

So, in service organisations, it is almost impossible to just ‘get the processes right’. The efficiency and effectiveness of the processes is as much about the how as the what. How employees carry out the processes, their attitudes and the way they interact with the customers and their colleagues determines whether the processes will work or not.

Which brings us back to organisational culture. As the great Edgar Schein told us a quarter of a century ago, culture is “a pattern of shared basic assumptions” which determines the way we think, feel and behave in certain contexts. If your processes look good on paper, they still might not be effective. The way in which people interact inside those boxes on the process map is what makes the process succeed or fail.

No-one is quite sure who came up with the saying ‘Culture eats Strategy’ but the prevailing assumptions in an organisation can derail even the most elegant management plans. If culture eats strategy it can eat your beautifully designed processes too.

Meg concludes:

If I had to place my stakes somewhere I would place it in culture over process

So would I. If people’s attitudes are in the right place, they will make bad processes work. If they are squabbling and disengaged, the best processes in the world will fall apart.

I can understand why people concentrate on processes and try to bypass messy stuff like culture. It’s easy to show that you have done something when you have redesigned a process. But, if you ignore an organisation’s culture, it will eventually jump up and bite you (which is why it usually gets the blame when things go wrong). As Schein also said, organisational culture might be complex and difficult to define, but you ignore it at your peril.

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22 Responses to Culture eats strategy – and it will eat your new processes too

  1. I find Schein’s insights valuable but his definition of the word “culture” much less so. For me
    culture = f(collective organisational mindset)

    – Bob

    • Chris Banzet says:

      @ Bob – What your definition of “culture” just described is “process” or “Organized policy” – Two books may provide some good reading for you. I know they sure changed my thought process, and really allowed me to see things from a whole different perspective…

      One is “Leadership and Self-Deception” by the Arbinger Institute. The second is Daniel Pink’s book “Drive”.. It’s very masterful in its evaluation of just what “purpose” is, and how it relates to success in the business world today. Operative word being “today” as business paradigms have shifted drastically!

  2. Meg Peppin says:

    Glad to have prompted a blog! Systems thinking apparently gives you culture for free according to the clip posted in the comments section on my blog. Yes, but what sort of culture?

    I do like Schein’s thoughts on basic shared assumptions, and have drawn out some real insights with people exploring these concepts. I often liken culture to the mind of the organisation – operating at both the conscious and unconscious, with all the dreams, hopes, neuroses and fears that sit inside us at work in the organisation. Just because we can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

    • Indy Neogy says:

      Thankyou Meg, you’ve asked exactly the right question of the systems thinkers/culture change for free proponents. It’s absolutely true that if you change the system in a significant manner, the culture will change. However, there’s less evidence than I’d like that it’s automatically a positive change.

      The depth of the culture change is also a relevant question, where culture bites back is in the longer term – and often it’s by rewriting the processes that were altered to make the original change. (And that’s part of where I felt the headline of this piece should lead us.)

    • Chris Banzet says:

      The finite epiphany comes when we realize the harmonious balance needed between the two. Not some “overriding” trump card where one drives the other. Choirs have voices in them which could no doubt overpower the rest, yet through collective understanding a choir realizes that the “best” sound comes from applying their voice, yet with respectful harmony to their fellow choir member.

      Businesses need to have this same mentality. Reading the sheet music is the process, along with the conductor who controls tempo and rhythm. yet individually the tempo, melody and meaning of the song takes on its own life with each choir member. The “culture” is established when all the members have a “recognition” of how beautiful they sound as a “choir”.

      Culture is neither simple nor hard. It is rather a “nurturing” and “pruning” gardening type effort that with careful fine-tuning absolutely sets you apart from competitive companies. While most managers continue to try and find a way to “shove it” back into the box of process and conformity…. What most managers and executives still blindly miss is that you cannot “install” culture, it can only be “instilled”…. Which is in total opposite of how you bring “process” to your company….

  3. Pingback: Culture eats strategy – and it will eat your new processes too - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  4. Dipper says:

    My reference on all business issues is the Mars Corporation. Run by a family for future generations of the family, so they do whatever is in their long-term interests. They favour culture over process 100%

  5. Needs2Cash says:

    Arguing that culture trumps process suggests no understanding of process. All work is process. Process brings resources and controls to work so work by humans/animals/machines can add value to inputs. The resources comprise facilities, equipment, skills and knowledge; please note the human elements. The controls comprise methods, procedures, care and coordination; again please note the human elements. Rightly, process management must begin and end with people all of whom operate within a system known as organization. Process-based organizational management systems should work better than organizations that ignore their processes and herd the cats instead. Culture without process sounds like a country club.

  6. Well said. Amazes me that the penny hasn’t dropped all round….may be too daunting a task for many people to attempt to influence culture so heads are buried in the sand instead! Little doubt that culture was at the core of the
    Banking collapse yet…..

    • Dipper says:

      hmmm … banks were not without process. I’m sure there was plenty of process round approving self-certified mortgages and mortgages on 6x salary. Worth reading “All the Devils Are Here” to get a view on the cultural issues round the banking collapse.

      • I think you’ve just re-made my point for me Dipper. I worked within FS for ten years and have worked with many of the household names since, including the mutuals. The 80s was marked by a swing to TQM and process management away from relationship banking and “loyalty”. The late 90s saw the dominance of process and the arrival of the so-called performance culture from investment banking with shareholder perceptions dominating most decision making. This was never a crash caused by a single event but death by a thousand slashes, creeping brand death rather than Barings-style catastrophe. In my experience, far too little time is taken understanding current culture, defining desired future culture and then developing processes and programmes to bridge the gap. Why? Because it takes time, it’s tough, it’s seldom measured, execs only deliver what they’re measured on and as a result no one takes responsibility for the big [icture.

  7. Bit of a whiff of dogma in some of the comments. My dogmatic response? It’s not a choice. It’s just a dam sight easier to implement smart minimal process or strategy if your culture is aligned to them in the first place.

    Anyway, this is a really useful piece. Thank you.


  8. Tim says:

    This is interesting. There is a lot in what you say that I really agree with – the descriptions of variation in demand and the need for service organisations to be able to absorb variety in a way that improvement tools designed for car manufacturing just cannot do. But I have trouble with your overall conclusions.
    Bad processes are made to work all the time. They work badly – because they are bad processes.
    As a systems thinker who has witnessed more than one culture change programme I would begin by asking – why are you trying to change the culture? From what to what? And how do you intend to do it?
    If you change the system the culture changes with it – that is what is meant by culture change for free.

  9. I agree with Tims penultimate point. What’s the point of embarking on change unless you can clearly communicate why?
    Describing the current culture and painting a picture of the desired future culture is culture change 101. Sure, the systems and processes need to be fit for purpose re the culture you’re looking to create but the communication about the “why?”needs to connect with “the way things are currently done round here” at least initially or it never hits the mark.

  10. Rick says:

    Tim/Ian – yes I agree with you here. Where I’ve seen it work really well is where you paint the picture of the future describing the culture and what the new processes will look like. That way I can see what the place will look like, how it will feel and what I will be doing every day.

  11. Matthew says:

    Indeed, culture is free, but it is not to be taken for granted, nor is it a gift. What I find missing in most discussions about culture is what creates a culture. After all, culture is makeable. If you ask me, there is one great systems thinker that put the finger on it, time and time again and that is (or was) W.E. Deming. Start studying and defining your organisation as a system from the perspective of its CUSTOMER purpose, i.e. the purpose according to the customer. Once you are clear about that, share that purpose with your co-workers, and clarify what the organisation wants to do (vision, mission, strategy, tactics, processes) but also what it does not want to do, in the pursuit of the customers’ purpose and of what matters to them. Be firm on the principles (values and norms), be soft on your people (give them time to get used to the new purpose, mission, vision, strategy, tactics, support them in developing the processes that make delighting the customer possible and help the ones that can not cope with the new way of working find their way out of the organisation). The new culture will come into being in a astoundingly short time and will become engrained the longer the walk follows the talk. Easy? Hmmm. Worth the while? Undoubtedly.

  12. Gareth Jones says:

    Great post. I wont add much except to say you are right to point out the folly of applying the manufacturing process thinking to service businesses or processes. To bring us full circle from Meg’s post, one of the people over there commented and included a link to a John Seddon video where he outlines, with some great examples, how dumb this is. Interestingly, its called “culture change is free”

    Its an hour long, but worth the hour.

  13. Pingback: What a wonderful world (of local government blogs and blogging) « We Love Local Government

  14. Pingback: A Troubled Culture Results in Organizational Chaos « Benefit Point

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