Intro to CI Culture

As I stated in the previous entry, there are two elements to a “CI Helix,” or a successful and sustainable CI program. Those two tools are culture and tools. We’re going to start by addressing culture.

Before we get into the mumbo-jumbo of theories and concepts, I’ll share the simple definition I’ve used in my own CI program: values used to make decisions. Don’t overcomplicate this: at its core, that’s all culture is, for our purposes.

No, really. That’s it. As you continue to read, you will learn that I am a very simple person. I try to keep everything at a sixth-grade level for everyone’s sake, including my own. That’s not because people aren’t smart enough, but rather, because the important thing is taking what you read and getting to work, rather than reading it four times just to understand it. You’ve heard of KISS? “Keep It Simple, Stupid”? We use that here, and wherever you are, you’ll need it for a successful CI program of your own.

Culture is values used to make decisions. Let me give you a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean.

First, consider the discussion you’d have at a bar with your best friends after work one evening. You might discuss some raunchy stuff: some jokes, some colorful stories, some heated discussion about sports, whatever else floats your boat. The more friends you have, and the more the drinks are flowing, the rowdier it gets. But that’s all normal at a bar.

By contrast, consider a discussion you may have about your faith. It could be in church or Sunday school, at home around the dinner table, in quiet with a close friend. It would be a serious discussion that might concern society, your community, even the faith-based organization of which you are a member.

What’s the difference between these discussions? In a word: values. 

At the bar, you value camaraderie, relaxation and release, good humor. At church, you value piety, humility, wisdom. The funny thing is, you’re the same person who can tell a dirty joke or lead a group in prayer–but it’s because you understand that different places have different values. 

Likewise, your workplace can have values of its own. And if you are the leader in that workplace, you can determine what those values ought to be at work. As I’ve said before and will say again, values are the basis of culture, and culture is the basis of a good CI program.

If you can get people to understand what the values are at work, and why you do things a certain way, you can get people to speak the same language about their work. If people come together with a common understanding, magic can happen. The same way we have fond recollections from bars and touching memories from talking about God, we can make magic happen in the office. It’s as simple as giving people a common understanding and common goals.

And before we get touchy-feely, let’s remember that this is nothing more than making improvements. You are improving work in every possible sense. You’re bringing your A-game, you’re thinking big about what you’re doing, and you’re giving people a chance to invest in their workplace. You’re talking to people and engaging their minds. Your bottom line is bound to improve.

You might wonder how I got to be so certain about this.

I’m lucky because, even though I didn’t realize the importance of culture (and values) until later in the game, it worked out anyway. In short, it’s because I was creating a culture and didn’t even know it until my organization reached a plateau in its progress. When we plateaued, and I then tried to figure out why we weren’t improving any further, I discovered the concept of culture and its importance in sustaining Continuous Improvement.

To give a quick plug, the best book we’ve found on this subject is Change the Culture, Change the Game by Roger Connors and Tom Smith. If you are serious about building an effective CI program, get a copy and read it. I’ve mentioned that I’ve read (or at least skimmed) a lot of stuff on my CI journey; this is a book you should read cover-to-cover, and carefully. Don’t skim it.

Had I understood the importance of culture and how to influence it when I started our CI program, I’d have accelerated our success by two years. Seriously. It would have made it easier for me to determine when we’d hit plateaus and then step the game up. Something to remember is that success in CI comes in plateaus, and you have to notice them so you can step further up. The quicker you can notice them, the shorter the plateau will be.

Next time, we take the concept of culture a little further. Its development has stages!

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