Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Protecting a Lean Culture Does Not Happen by Accident

There is very little debate about the importance of culture to an organization's success, and that the responsibility for defining the culture lies with leaders. Once the culture starts to develop, though, how do you hold the gains and protect the natural tendency to fall back to the way things were before the improvements? The easy answer is that the responsibility belongs with leaders, but that does not provide enough detail to be of any use. Unless there is a clear and standardized system to protect the culture, including the methods, policies, and ability to identify new and existing gaps, the chance of backsliding is pretty high.

The culture needs to be protected by those who have the power to ensure that, among other things, leaders are fulfilling their responsibilities effectively, people are developing adequately, new hires are carefully selected and have values consistent with the those of the company, and people are being promoted for the right reasons. One team that is regularly involved with many of these areas and can ensure that they are done consistently and in a way that strengthens, rather than weakens, the culture is human resources. A strong HR team is in the best position to understand the company's culture, develop systems that protect it from damage, and help people understand the importance of following the associated standards.


It takes a lot of work to define and create the type of culture that will help drive continual improvement and improve competitiveness. Once an organization starts making progress, however, it is very easy to slip back into old ways. Unless decisions related to hiring, promoting, and developing people are made consistently and in a way that is clearly aligned with the company's needs, the gains can easily disappear. The way to prevent this from happening is to develop standards that assure work activities protect the culture and assure that people-related decisions are made by a team that is independent with respect to personal relationships and can make objective decisions regarding a person's cultural fit or readiness for promotion.

Unfortunately, many human resource departments do not consider protecting the company's culture as a prime responsibility – or a responsibility at all. A quick Google search on the objectives of human resources identifies a lot of general statements like hiring, maintaining employment records, and providing counsel about terminating employees. Although some of these are loosely connected to protecting the culture, none that I could find mentioned it specifically. Among the likely reasons for this is that HR teams rarely have the power to challenge attempts by executives to avoid the standards. Also, like other parts of the organization, HR professionals are so busy doing their "day jobs" that they rarely step back to understand the fundamental reasons for doing the things they do.
Culture Protecting
Standards need to be designed to protect and embed the culture and, like any standard, if one person is allowed to bypass them, it will deteriorate and any protection it provides is lost. As a result of this, things move back toward the prior state and the organization's culture loses its ability to provide a competitive advantage.


Bypassing the standards that protect the culture are often justified with good reasons, like needing to make a hiring decision quickly before losing a candidate or a leader promoting someone with whom he or she has worked in the past, so the person's capabilities and values are "already known." Regardless of whether the reasons appear sound or not, it is up to leaders to do their part by committing to the standards and following them every time. It is far less damaging to lose a potential candidate than to ignore a standard, go around the system, and hire someone who is not a good fit for the organization.


Talking about the importance of culture will do little to protect it from damage. Effectively protecting it can only occur when the elements become standardized and embedded into the company's normal operation. Specifically, this requires:
  1. Developing standards for the cultural dimensions of an organization, including hiring, promoting, training and development, etc.;
  2. Making everyone aware of the standards, including what they mean to day-to-day business, and holding everyone responsible for following the processes (or ensuring that countermeasures are implemented when the standards cannot be followed);
  3. Clarifying to the HR team that they have a responsibility to protect the culture by communicating and assuring compliance to, and continually improving, the associated standards (this may require development of HR team members);
  4. Giving the HR team the power to enforce the standards in all instances;
  5. Adding HR positions to job rotations to help key people develop a deep understanding of the standards, systems, and processes, including why they are critical to the organization's competitive position.
This does not mean that HR is the only team responsible for assuring the culture is protected. Everyone has the responsibility to follow the standards in a way that assures protection and continual improvement toward the ideal. What is does mean is that, as the official guardian of the culture, HR is responsible for many of the associated standards and has the authority to stop anyone from going around the system.

There are, of course, standards that protect culture and are not controlled by the HR team, including keeping the vision alive and relevant, helping team members make problems visible without fear, developing team member abilities to see and address problems, etc., but even these can be aided by support from HR to help leaders develop and improve the ability to make these things happen effectively.


Everyone in the company is busy working and improving their part of the system. Identifying and protecting a culture, however, applies to the entire system and requires focus from a team that has the ability to step back to think and act holistically. It is not as easy as many of the responsibilities normally associated with HR but is arguably the most critical.

When you think about it, it is not the products, services, or processes that make a company great, it is the people who develop, produce, and improve them. Without a culture that drives continual learning and lets people use their talents to create great products, services, and processes, the company has little to sustain its success. Talking about the culture does nothing – defining it in clear terms and implementing the systems that identify the gaps and protect the gains is the way to turn a soft, difficult to measure organizational element into something much more concrete.