Leaders wanting to focus their organization on boosting service/quality performance stand at a critical crossroad, choosing which road will take them to that higher ground. Their two main routes are piecemeal programs to “fix the frontline” or a long-term cultural change process. As they look down both roads, first appearances can be deceiving.

The piecemeal programs road looks smooth and inviting. It’s broad and well-used. There’s plenty of company, and the road appears to be going uphill in the right direction. But around the first bend, conditions start to change. The road starts to get bumpy.

The road winds its way downhill, and advancement takes little effort. But soon, the pavement turns into a dirt track. This starts to get soft and muddy. The road empties into a bog. With a sinking feeling, leaders watch a few organizations struggling up the cultural change road far above. They realize their organization is stuck and will have a tough time getting back on track.

Taking the High Road

On the other hand, the cultural change road looks appealing at first glance. But the grade is very steep; it clearly requires much more effort. Initially, this road runs parallel to the piecemeal programs route. In several places, they almost merge. Some organizations are confused and begin following the programs route without even realizing it.

But as the journey continues, the terrain gets tougher. Many travelling companions fall behind, drop out, or cut across to the much easier program route. This course gets potholed and narrow. In places, it’s tough to stay on the thin ledge high above the canyon floor. Leaders notice they’re almost alone on what seems like an endless journey. But when they pause to look around, they find themselves in the company of high performers.

The Wrong Road Won’t Lead to the Right Destination

Service/quality improvement programs, if they’re well implemented, will give some payoffs. Many organizations avoid getting mired in the muck. But a series of programs, no matter how good they are, rarely provide the substantial performance and effectiveness that top service/quality performers enjoy.

Many leaders set strategies and launch efforts to boost service/quality levels. But few are willing to pay the price to make the long and winding road to culture change. Many put those good intentions into mission statements, strategic plans, training, and rebranding. This is often magical thinking. It’s typically executed with pushing rather than pulling through manipulation and bribery to “motivate” higher performance.

Fad surfing in the C-suite often leads to dunking trainees in the training tank, slogans, improvement projects, marketing campaigns, motivational programs, educational fix-them efforts, etc. This produces eye-rolling “BOHICA’S” – “bend over, here it comes again” responses. Many have seen these programs come and go. “Here comes another one. Lay low long enough, and they’ll soon be on to another flavor-of-the-month. This too shall pass”.

From Bolt-On Programs to Built-In Culture Change

Hundreds of studies over the decades have shown that 50 – 70 percent of improving customer service levels, restructuring, mergers/acquisitions, introducing new technologies, performance management systems, leadership training, and the like fail.

The main cause of those failures is a partial and piecemeal effort. Too many of these initiatives have a limited scope and are disconnected from daily operations. The causes of this problem are rooted in the same management-push approaches as the departmental silos, frustrating customers, staff, and managers throughout so many organizations.

In misguided attempts to hold individuals and groups accountable, many senior managers perpetuate a narrow view of the organization as clusters of groups and departments. They fail to see their organization as a living organism with both independent and highly interdependent components. These managers also do little more than pay lip service to “culture” and “soft” issues like morale, values, team spirit, engagement, pride, and the like.

This chart shows a few key differences between a narrow and management-based approach and a systemic or leadership-based approach.

Bolt-On Piecemeal Programs

Built-In Culture Change

Expert/Specialist Led Line Management Led
Stand-Alone Projects/Programs Integrated/Interconnected Strategies
Constantly Out to Launch Disciplined Follow Through
Electronic/Information Overload Two-Way Conversations/Empartnerment
Mission/Values with High “Snicker Factor” Core Values/Purpose Guide Programs, Operations, and Behaviors
Reactive Management and Search for Guilty/Weaknesses Proactive Root Cause Analysis and Search for Systemic Changes/Strengths
Measurement and Performance Management Gaming Feedback Guides Learning, Improvement, and Change
Inside-Out Focus and Controls Outside In Aligns Internal Partnerships


Many organizations make major investments in external branding. But often, less attention or investment goes to improving the organization’s internal effectiveness. This is overpromising and underdelivering. It’s the well-traveled road to disengaged frontline servers and unhappy customers.

Which road are you on?

If frontline servers aren’t living the brand, customers’ raised expectations are dashed, and their frustration grows. A big reason frontline staff can’t live the brand is that operational, service, order fulfillment, and other processes aren’t aligned.

Implementing lasting organizational changes and constant improvement is about balancing a way of doing (tools and techniques) with a way of being (behaviors and culture.) Living the “soft” side of change and improvement is very hard — and vital to enduring success.

As Robert Frost wrote in “The Road Not Taken:”

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”