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Creating a Culture Change – A Pathway to Improved Reliability

For some firms, poor reliability and its impact on production are far more serious than for others. For those that operate on a continuous basis - they run 24 hours per day seven days per week - there is no room for unplanned shutdowns of the production equipment; any loss of production is often difficult or even impossible to make up. For others that do not operate in a 24/7 mode, recovery can be easier, but nevertheless time consuming and expensive, reducing profits.

Many programs available in the industry are designed to help businesses improve reliability. They are identified in trade literature, promoted at conferences and over the web, and quite often they are in place within the plants in your own company. Most of these programs are what I refer to as "hard skill" programs. They deal with the application of resources and resource skills in the performance of a specific task aimed at reliability improvement. For example, you decide that you want to improve preventive maintenance (PM). To accomplish this you train your workforce in preventive maintenance skills, purchase the necessary equipment, and roll out a PM program accompanied with corporate publicity, presentations of what you expect to accomplish, and other forms of hype in order to get buy in from those who need to execute it. Then you congratulate your team for a job well done and move on to the next project.

Often at this juncture, something very significant happens. The program you delivered starts strongly, but immediately things begin to go wrong. The work crews assigned to preventive maintenance get diverted to other plant priorities; although promises are made to return them to their original PM assignments, this never seems to happen. Equipment that is scheduled to be out of service for preventive maintenance can't be shutdown due to the requirements of the production department; although promises are made to take the equipment off-line at a later time, this never seems to happen. Finally, the various key members of management who were active advocates and supporters at the outset are the very ones who permit the program interruptions, diminish its intent, and reduce the potential value. Often these people do make attempts to get the program back on track, but these attempts are often half-hearted. Although nothing is openly said, the organization clearly recognizes what is important, and often this is not the preventive maintenance program.

I have simplified the demise of the preventive maintenance program in our example. Yet this is exactly as it happens, although much more subtle. In the end, the result is the same. Six months after the triumphant rollout of the program, it is gone. The operational status quo has returned and, if you look at the business process, you may not even be able to ascertain that a preventive maintenance program ever existed at all.

For those of us trying to improve reliability or implement any type of change in our business, the question we need to ask ourselves is why does this happen? The intent of the program was sound. It was developed with a great deal of detail, time, and often money; the work plan was well executed. Yet in the end there is nothing to show for all of the work and effort.

Part of the answer is that change is a difficult process. Note that I didn't say program, because a program is something with a beginning and an end. A process has a starting point - when you initially conceived the idea - but it has no specific ending and can go on forever.

Yet the difficulty of implementing change isn't the root cause of the problem. You can force change. If you monitor and take proper corrective action, you may even be able over the short term to force the process to appear successful. Here, the operative word is you. What if you implement the previously-mentioned preventive maintenance program and then, in order to assure compliance, continually monitor the progress. Further suppose that you are a senior manager and have the ability to rapidly remove from the process change any roadblocks it encounters as it progresses. What then? Most likely the change will stick as long as you are providing care and feeding. But what do you think will happen if after one month into the program you are removed from the equation. If there are no other supporters to continue the oversight and corrective action efforts, the program will most likely lose energy. Over a relatively short time, everything will likely return to the status quo.

The question we need to answer is why does this happen to well-intentioned reliability-driven change process throughout industry? The answer is that the process change is a victim of the organization's culture. This hidden force, which defines how an organization behaves, works behind the scenes to restore the status quo unless specific actions are taken to establish a new status quo for the organization. Without proper attention to organizational culture, long-term successful change is not possible.

Culture Defined

The starting point of our discussion is to define organizational culture in a way that is understandable. In his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, E. Schein defines organizational culture as follows:

A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

If you think about this definition, it clearly describes that sub-foundation upon which an organization's behavior is built. It also paints a clear picture of how ingrained these basic assumptions are which in turn allows you to understand how difficult they can be to change. Let's look at the component parts:

· "A pattern of shared basic assumptions"

The operative word here is that the culture is constructed upon shared basic assumptions. Because they are shared, when you try to change the assumptions you need to change them in everyone.

· "The group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration"

The next part of the definition explains that these assumptions are not new creations. They have been tested over time as the organization learned how to solve both the internal and external problems that quite often were serious threats to their very existence.

· "That has worked well enough to be considered valid"

Furthermore, these assumptions worked well for the organization, which has collectively considered them valid. Think about the problems you will face trying to implement change where the new initiative is in conflict with a basic assumption that has been validated over time.

· "Taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems"

This last part locks the assumption into the culture because it is taught to all new members as the "way we work around here if you want to succeed."

This is a very powerful definition if you think about its far-reaching impact on new change initiatives. It essentially says that if a new initiative conflicts with a basic assumption that was learned over time, has worked well enough to be held as valid, and is taught to the new members so that everyone believes it as true, then changing things is going to be a very difficult task.

The Elements of Culture

In their book Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life, authors T. Deal and A. Kennedy describe the four components of a corporate culture - values, heroes, rites and rituals, and the cultural network. Their concept that organizational culture is composed of four key parts is a valid one; with some alterations, I will use the four-part model in my discussion of culture and how you can change culture in order to implement reliability-focused change in your organization.

These four elements, working in conjunction with one another, make up that rather elusive thing that we refer to as organizational culture. The important thing to recognize is what people really mean when they talk about cultural change. They mean that they wish to alter the value system, displace people who are emulated, but are not in line with the new values, change the rites and rituals, and reframe the cultural infrastructure. Think about the implication of this change effort. It certainly is a major step for any firm to take; which is why it is so difficult to implement and make stick over the long term.

Organizational Values

Organizational Values are the beliefs and assumptions that an organization believes to be true and uses as a set of guiding principles for managing its everyday business. They are what collectively drive decision making within a company. For instance, an organizational value may be that production is the only thing of importance and, when things break, they need rapid response in order to return them to service. Another example of an organizational value is that equipment should never fail where the failure was not anticipated through proactive maintenance work initiatives. Although these two examples are very different, in each case, the value described drives the collective decision making process for the organization.

What are your organization's values? Thinking about and identifying them may not be as easy as you think; the true values of a firm are not always written down. Instead, they reflect how the members of the firm collectively behave, how they conduct their business, and what they believe are the true measures of success.

Organizational values for our discussion can be defined as:

A company's basic, collectively understood, universally applied and wholly accepted set of beliefs about how to behave within the context of the business. They also describe what achieving success feels like. These values are internalized by everyone in the company and therefore are the standard for excepted behavior.

When faced with a problem, those within the organization will invariably make a decision that reflects the organizational values of that business. These decisions are often not made consciously because organizational values are internalized and taken for granted. When you make a decision supported by the values, you feel comfortable. When you don't, you sense that something is just not right with your world.

Role Models

Role models are people within the company who perform in a fashion that the organization can and wants to emulate. They are successful individuals who stand out in the organization by performing in line with the corporate value system. Role models show people that if you wish to be successful you need to follow the values set up for the organization. These role models are then copied by those who work within the business because they show how to perform within the culture. In addition, the role models are used as an example for newcomers to clearly show how to behave if you wish to succeed.

Let us discuss further the three key components of a role model.

Top of the organization

Most people who are used as role models are at or near the top of the organization's hierarchy. These are the people we view as the most successful. They are the managers of our departments, the leaders, the ones who set the direction for the business. The key word here is success. Because those at the top are perceived as successful, we tend to use them as role models.

There is another reason why we often choose our leaders as role models. They set the expectations of what we are to accomplish at work. In most cases, these expectations are in line with their expectations for themselves. As a result, we emulate and assume their style because we are all working towards the same end. In addition, failure to achieve these expectations usually has severe negative outcomes. Therefore, modeling the manager to achieve the desired results makes sense.

Successful within the organization's culture

The second component is that role models are not just successful, but they are successful within the existing culture. This is very important. Since role models are those whom we emulate and since they have shown that they can be successful in the existing culture, the existing culture is continuously reinforced.

A style we can identify with and adopt

Even though some people are successful within the culture, there still may be reasons why we would not choose them as role models. If we truly want to use people as role models, we need not only to view them as successful, but also to feel comfortable adopting their style of management. Suppose you are the type of person who firmly believes that all people within the workforce have unique value and should be treated with dignity and respect. Further suppose that your manager (who is a successful part of the organization) has achieved this position by acting and behaving in exactly the opposite fashion. Could you accept this person as a role model? Your answer would probably be no. Although you want to behave in a manner that will provide you a successful career, the behavior of your manager could never fit your personal beliefs and manner of conducting business.

Bad Role Models Also Have Value

The role model that is in conflict with our personal value system is worth further discussion. This type of person is the most difficult to work with. This is the person whose beliefs and actions are so opposed to our own that it is virtually impossible to adopt his or her style of management or behavior without violating who we are. There are alternatives when you are confronted with this type of situation. You can leave the organization and seek work elsewhere. You can attempt to transfer to another department. Or you can try to stick it out and survive, hoping that the individual will leave before you do.

Not everyone is a positive role model. We are often presented with what I will refer to as "good bad examples." These are people who we can look at and say "here is someone who I do not wish to act like." If you examine why you feel this way and adopt behaviors that are opposite and more in line with how you feel you should behave, then they will have done you a great service. They will have shown you a model that you will choose to reject for a more positive (and opposite) behavior when you become a role model later in your career.

Rites and Rituals are the work processes that go on day-to-day within a company. They are so ingrained in how people conduct business that they are not actually visible to those within the company. Rituals are "how things are done around here." Rites are a higher level of rituals. They are the events that reinforce the behavior demonstrated in the rituals.


A ritual is a rule or set of rules that guide our day-to-day work behavior. Rituals are taken for granted because they are an integral part of what our jobs are and how we do them. As they are repeated daily, rituals become an accepted part of how business is conducted; over time, they become invisible to those who follow them. Yet they are extremely important not only because they define what we do and how we do it, but also because they represent our culture and the value system in place in our plant.

Furthermore, rituals are taught to new employees so that they understand "how work gets done around here." Rituals guide how people communicate and interact. Because they are so ingrained in our work, an outsider might say they were blindly followed - often even if they made little or no sense. In addition, they are often fiercely defended simply because "that is how things are done." This viewpoint explains to some degree why new programs or processes that conflict with the plant rituals encounter such strong resistance when they are implemented.

Every one of us has had this experience. The first thing we are given on our first day of work is training in how the work is conducted - the rituals of the job or department and, what is more important, the culture in which we now reside. As a new employee, this training is highly important because we are being told not only how to act but also what is needed to be successful.

Many years ago, I received my first supervisory opportunity as a foreman at my plant. Before the foreman who I was replacing left for another area, we spent an entire week together. I learned how work was assigned to the workforce, how to interact with production, how to order materials, and many other tasks.

At the time, our plant was totally reactive in the way we conducted maintenance. When things broke down, our most important task was to repair them as quickly as possible and return them to service. Still I was surprised when after lunch on Friday the entire crew was not assigned additional work but stayed at their staging area. I questioned the foreman I was replacing and was informed that they were waiting for things to break so that they could rapidly respond to the problem, make the needed repair, and avoid weekend overtime. Being naïve I asked why they couldn't be assigned jobs that could easily be interrupted. That way, we could get some work accomplished while at the same time be available to respond to plant emergencies. I was told in no uncertain terms not to "rock the boat" because "this was how things are done around here." This was the ritual followed by each foreman. The culture was not about to let me change it!

In our context, therefore, a ritual is an invisible day-to-day work practice that is accepted as how work is performed within the organization's culture. The ritual provides everyone with a foundation for how work is handled. Processes outside of the accepted rituals are considered alien. The organization will feel extreme discomfort when new rituals outside of the accepted norm are introduced, even though it may not know exactly why. When I suggested an alternate solution to waiting for things to break, I was reprimanded even though the outcome would have been the same - we could have still responded to productions emergency needs.


A rite is a company ceremony or event that reinforces our rituals. In a sense, they provide a stage for those involved to dramatize the culture and organizational values to those in attendance. Rituals and rites go hand in hand because without accepted rituals, rites do not exist.

Rites can cover a large spectrum of an organization's events. They include performance reviews, training, conferences, service awards, and departmental and group meetings, all the way down to a pat on the back for a job well done.

Let us look at a simple example. Consider the foreman who kept his crew in their staging area on Friday afternoon waiting to respond to the emergency needs of production. Several rites were associated with this single ritual. The first of the rites is the "pat on the back." When production called, maintenance was available to make the quick fix. If successful, the foreman would get a pat on the back for a job well done - a rite positively reinforcing a plant ritual. This sort of success would eventually translate into another rite - a positive performance review, better salary, and a chance for promotion.

Conversely, if the ritual was not followed, the associated rite would have a severe negative connotation. In this case, production would complain about the foreman's performance, resulting in other potential problems for the foreman who was out of compliance. My idea of having the crews work on interruptible jobs on Friday afternoon not only violated a maintenance ritual, but also seriously threatened an established set of rites for the foremen - the pat on the back and others of more significance.

The Cultural Infrastructure

Cultural Infrastructure is the fourth part of the organizational culture model. This is the informal set of processes that work behind the scenes to pass information, spread gossip, and influence behavior of those within the company.

The various components of an organization's structure can be represented as blocks on an organization chart. Although the blocks each represent a function within the company, they can't stand alone. They need the connecting lines that tie them together, providing a linkage for all of the individual parts. This linkage is the cultural infrastructure.

For our discussion, we will focus on people and communications as the key elements of the cultural infrastructure. These components are the glue that binds the organizational culture together and promotes sustainability of the firm. Thus, our definition of cultural infrastructure is as follows:

Cultural infrastructure is the hidden hierarchy of people and communication processes that binds the organization to the culture and sustains it over time.

In their book Corporate Cultures, Deal and Kennedy describe the various aspects of the cultural infrastructure. I have modified their list and added two more. Whereas Deal and Kennedy have taken a generic approach, my focus is on how the cultural infrastructure affects plant reliability. The cultural infrastructure includes:

  • Story Tellers - promoting the culture through war stories
  • Keepers of the Faith - mentors and protectors of the culture
  • Whisperers - passers of information behind the scenes
  • Gossips - the hidden day-to-day communication system
  • Spies - passers of sensitive information to those who may or may not need to know
  • Symbols - mechanisms for conveying what and who is important
  • Language - terminology that describes what is done and often how

Why Is the Cultural Infrastructure So Important?

Each of the cultural infrastructure components that we have listed above can be used to promote cultural change or, conversely, to disrupt it. Figure 1 below identifies each component, providing a brief indication of what and how you need to use them to successfully support your change initiatives.

The Cultural Infrastructure

Figure 1
Components of the cultural infrastructure

Changing the cultural infrastructure is not an easy task. Great care and patience must be taken if you are going to make the attempt. However, you must understand that the cultural infrastructure is a hidden force that, if not dealt with, will most assuredly work to undermine whatever changes you are attempting to implement.

Cultural Change and Reliability

Figure 2 describes a reactive repair-based work scenario. First, something breaks down (block 1); then the problem is identified, a maintenance crew dashes in, makes the save and order is restored (block 2). As a result, the crew receives praise from production for a job well done (block 3). The praise is most often immediate and the reactive behavior is, therefore, immediately reinforced. Maintenance is now ready for the next emergency (block 4).

Figure 2

As you can see in figure 1, the organizational values dictate the response from the maintenance organization. In this case it is "drop what you are doing and fix the equipment that has broken down." In many cases this type of response is required. However all too often the quick fix or "emergency job" is not really an emergency at all - just someone's desire to get their job worked ahead of others. Nevertheless when the call comes in maintenance responds and is summarily rewarded. This response and the related reward are the rituals and their reinforcing rites at work. Over time the rapid responders are rewarded for their efforts and become the role models for the organization.

What you see at work here is the perpetuation of the reactive maintenance model. Since we wish to change the culture to one focused on reliability we need to alter the culture. To accomplish this we need to change the four elements of culture that we have addressed in this paper as follows:

The organizational values must be altered. If the values support a reactive behavior it is impossible to change the culture. This is the role of the leadership team.
Once the values have been altered work processes, structure, communication and other basic operational processes must be changed. The rapid response can no longer be tolerated unless it truly is necessary. Additionally a new reward structure must be put in place to provide those you wish to change with reinforcement for the new set of behaviors you wish them to learn. This is the way you can modify your rituals and their supporting rites.
The role models of the reactive process need to adopt the new reliability process or they need to be removed from role model positions. It is critical that you have the people in place to model the new behavior as it is being implemented. This will work on two levels. First the organization will see that as work takes place there are people in place showing them a new way that "things are going to be done around here." Second, it proves to the organization that you are serious about the change.
Lastly you need to pay careful attention to the key members of the cultural infrastructure. Remember that these individuals are the behind-the-scenes communication network. You need their support. This can often be accomplished by including them in the effort.

Last Thoughts

Implementing long lasting change is an extremely difficult task. Five hundred years ago an Italian philosopher and statesman Nicolo Machiavelli said:

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies, all of those who have done well under the old conditions, and luke-warm defenders in those who will do well under the new."

However as difficult as change can be, if you focus on your organizational culture, you can vanquish your enemies and make luke-warm defenders into staunch supporters.

Article submitted by, By Stephen J. Thomas

The contents of this paper were extracted from Improving Maintenance and Reliability Through Cultural Change by Stephen J. Thomas with permission from Industrial Press, Inc.

Steve Thomas

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