Five Steps to a High-Performance CultureAesop, the ancient Greek fabulist and storyteller observed, “After all is said and done, more is said than done.”

Culture change is a perfect example. Many leaders proclaim culture change is a key strategic objective. And for good reason. Culture’s been well proven as a critical “soft” factor that produces hard results.

Signs of a low-performing culture include declining engagement levels, rising absenteeism, a high “eye roll factor” for vision, mission, and values, higher turnover, declining customer satisfaction, resistance to change, low trust and teamwork, decline in quality and rise in errors, and poor safety performance.

But decades of studies continue to consistently show that up to 70% of culture change efforts fail. Despite all that’s said about culture change, not much is being done in most organizations.

We first began helping organizations with culture change in the early eighties. Over the years, we’ve seen major transformations where lots was done, and too many efforts where lots was said, but little was done.

Our earlier work was documented in two books, Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance and Pathways to Performance: A Guide to Transforming Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organization. Over the past dozen years, we’ve boiled much of this research and experience down to five key steps:

  1. Vision, Core Values, and Purpose/Mission – this is the foundation of any culture development work. The three key questions are: Where are we going? What do we believe in? Why do we exist? These need compelling emotional hooks that connect with the heart of leadership.
  2. Supervisors/Managers/Executives Leadership Behaviors – an organization’s culture ripples out from the team leading it. What leaders do overshadows everything they say. Defining specific behaviors and cascading them to the frontline for each core value is a vital part of this step.
  3. Management Processes/Systems – daily operations and organizational practices signal “how we do things around here.” Do leaders “snoopervise” or trust people? Do systems and processes help or hinder serving customers? Does the structure, compensation, promotional practices, performance management, operational methods, communication, etc. block living the vision and values?
  4. Front Line Staff Leadership Behaviors – leadership is an action, not a position. Powerful cultures engage, enable, instruct, and inspire front line performers. Energizing “Our Way” programs delivered and modelled by leaders outline expected behaviors and provide ongoing coaching.
  5. Continuous Improvement Activities and Organization Development – practices, procedures, and training for continually developing people, processes, and operations are embedded. This step connects back to the first one and closes the loop on a feedback rich and highly engaged culture.

Visioning a high performance culture without effective action is hallucination. Talk without strong follow through perpetuates the delusion. As American naturalist, poet, and essayist, Henry David Thoreau said, “If you build castles in the air, your work need not be lost: That is where they should be built. Now put foundations under them.”

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