Leveraging Culture in Operational Improvement

“There are two things that people hate; change, and the way things are” – words of wisdom frequently heard from our clients over the years, and yet they have never become any less true.

We have long recognised that individuals, teams, and even entire organisations are often fundamentally change averse. A key question then, is how change aversion can be managed and the end-user become a driver of change, rather than an obstacle.

Operational changes are almost exclusively built on a desire for improvement. Processes should be faster, more efficient, easier and less bureaucratic, all in the name of increasing profit or saving cost. It seems logical, then, to manage the culture that underpins this improvement and its realisation within the organisation. Culture is the collective values, attitudes and behaviours that characterise organisations and employees. It influences people’s interactions, decision making, and performance. Failure to recognise its importance leaves by the wayside a fundamental aspect of change that cannot be measured in time, cost or output, but can be the single greatest driver of resistance that a change programme will face.

My experience, both, public and private sector, has highlighted to me the impact that scale has on the prevailing culture. The degree to which individuals and even entire teams will be willing to dig their heels in and resist change is often amplified in larger organisations.

In a small organisation, the individuals driving change are not distant silhouettes, simply names on an email header, but are colleagues and friends to those in whom they are trying to drive change. This gives them a distinct advantage in that they have first-hand credibility with the end-user and thus much less of a task on their hands to sell the change.

With larger organisations however, the negative voices so often blame those orchestrating change for being ‘out of touch’ and unaware of the situation on the ground, even in situations where this could not be further from the truth. This is often because the end-user cannot see the change benefitting them directly, seeing change as wasted time and effort, easy to blame on individuals distant from the realities of the coalface.

For this reason, visible leaders, end-user-focussed comms and present change champions are most likely to drive the best behaviours. This is all in the name of creating a self-evident focus on the end-user, where they feel confident that the change is for their own benefit. This unifies the aims of the leadership and the end-user in bringing about the change. Put simply, treating the end-user as the beneficiary of change, rather than a cog in the machine, creates an atmosphere where the individuals most crucial to the change feel that it is in their own best interests. If an end-user feels that the change will benefit them directly, they will intrinsically favour it, cooperate with those orchestrating it and rally their peers. The prevailing culture then becomes one of change-positivity, reducing the resistance felt across the organisation.

Simple though this is in theory, in the organisations with whom I have worked, change-aversion has been a constant, unavoidable factor. For this reason, effective management of culture is a cornerstone of any successful change programme, regardless of its form or purpose. Without understanding the prevailing attitudes within an organisation, it is near-impossible to be able to properly win over and prepare the end-user for the new status quo.

End-users are the single most crucial part of change within the organisation because they embody the operational change. Understanding their attitude towards the as-is is key to understanding their attitude towards the to-be. If leveraged correctly, the culture among them can be a formidable tool to facilitate improvement.

To illustrate the reason that culture is deserving of our focus, we can consider the damage caused by overlooking it.

If an organisation’s culture is not aligned to change, employees will understandably resist or even undermine the new processes and systems. For example, if an organisation has a well embedded system, that the users understand and that gets the job done, and care is not taken to demonstrate the improvements and benefits of a move to a new system, this will foster a change averse culture. This is because the user will not see the logic in spending valuable time and effort learning and adapting to a new system if they cannot see the benefit to their work. Consequently, they will seek to resist change, in order to continue their work as-is. This resistance can derail even the most carefully planned implementations, because change relies fundamentally on the end-user’s compliance.

How then, given the nature of change-aversion and its deep roots within many organisations, is this challenge to be overcome? It is no doubt easier to identify, analyse and understand the problem than it is to overcome it, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot be done. Understanding the root of the existing problem, not only from an organisational perspective, but also from the perspective of the end-user is a key, as these two things can be fundamentally juxtaposed.

For instance, what is inefficient for the organisation as a whole may well be the path of least resistance for the end-user. The change then, needs to be sold to the user, just as one would to a client. To ensure the organisation can move to a more efficient model, the end-user must be persuaded to alter their ways of working and shown how this is to their own benefit. It is this shift in attitude from seeing the user as a change enabler to a customer that can be so valuable in change models. The change is brought about to help the user to help the organisation, not to work against them, and this needs to be demonstrated. If the end-users are sold on the change, a change-positive culture builds and becomes a crucial cornerstone of operational improvement. Support, goodwill and faith in the organisation are built at ground-level, making change-positivity increasingly likely to prevail.

Ultimately, turning culture within an organisation from a threat to implementation into a vehicle for success is no small feat but is by no means an insurmountable challenge. There is no single answer to the question of how to sell change within an organisation. However, building a change model using the knowledge and appreciation of the prevailing culture and understanding the importance of the end-user is an unerringly positive place to begin. It will not only facilitate the enactment of change, but also provide far wider insight into the opportunities for improvement at a ground level, driving the realisation of the end goals across the whole organisation.