Cultural change and human nature

Having defined “winning culture” and described the goal, the strategy and the structure for creating a winning culture in previous articles, let’s explore cultural change and the facts of human nature that you must take into account to change a culture.  To use your management system effectively to execute your focused strategy and to continuously improve toward your inspiring goal, you must also work on the existing culture.


My thinking on a “winning culture” is mainly based on the concept of a “generative culture” as defined by Hearts and Minds at  When you read this reference material about generative culture you will see that it is a culture in which two-way communications is predominant, leading to ever-increasing levels of trust and accountability with a corresponding drop in bureaucracy, supervision requirements and workloads.  Hence, communications is one of the best places to start when working to improve workplace culture.  I suggest you start by asking whether people in the workplace feel free to talk about their concerns.  In the most effective workplace cultures, the boss is among the first to hear bad news and there are few surprises, up or down the management lines.


I believe that culture grows out of predominant habits and that habits grow out of behaviors that are based on beliefs.  If we want to improve a culture, as I stated earlier, we first have to talk about beliefs.  Then we have to work on the key habits that impact the culture.  James Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit will give you great examples of how habits can be changed for the better.  Duhigg’s book suggests that we work with the “cue-routine-reward” cycle to get people to recognize key cues of habitual routines and to assess the cravings for rewards that drive the cycle in order to devise new, more effective routines.  Duhigg’s example of Tony Dungy’s success in American professional football suggests that we most focus on the cues for the most important workplace threats or opportunities and train to habit strength our responses to those cues.


If culture is the “final frontier” in workplace improvement, the first wall of defense we are likely to face when entering that final frontier is the ego.  Sami Cohen’s new book An Invitation to the Now tells us about the “constructed self” made up of the “ideal self”, the “conceptual self” and the “projected self.”  When people invest heavily in keeping up appearances for the projected self, they often withhold information to protect their egos.  They guard against confessing confusion, concerns or incompetence even when the situation screams out that they should.  The projected self is often the source of the “can do” attitude that leads aircraft pilots and maintenance technicians to press on with a course of action that should be stopped.


By now you are probably recognizing that, whereas the goal and the strategy can be clear, concise and focused, the structure or management system has many elements, with feedback loops, and that creating a winning culture will require you to take on human factors.  You may well be asking how to go about this whole system with focus.


Gary Keller tells us how to manage this dilemma in his book The One Thing.  The trick is to focus, to the best of your ability, on one thing at a time when carrying out improvement efforts.  Recent neuroscience research (reported by Duhigg in The Power of Habit and by Dr. Richard Restak in several books) confirms that the human brain is wired to do only one thing at a time when cognitive effort is required.  To be most effective at one thing at a time, Keller tells us to look for changes that could make other changes easier or unnecessary.  Keller uses a domino analogy and points out that a small domino can topple a domino that is 50% larger.  This approach is essentially the same as Charles Duhigg’s targeting of “keystone habits” that can shift other habits without as much effort.


You can prove the practicality of focus with a simple experiment on your own.  Imagine that a jug of water represents all the resources you have for a given time frame and that full glasses of water represent the work products you want to complete.  Imagine that you have five glasses and only enough water to fill one.  In one case, simply fill one glass and wait for another jug of water, which will come at the end of the first simulated work period.  In the other case, put one fifth of the water in each of the five glasses.  Then imagine that with each new jug of water comes another glass to fill (representing new problems or opportunities) and repeat the above processes for eight simulated work periods.  In each iteration, fill one glass in the first case and spread the water across all the glasses in the second case.  In the first case, at the end of eight work periods, you will have finished eight work products (eight full glasses of water) and have four projects in the work queue.  In the second case, after eight work periods, you will have finished only five work products and have seven incomplete projects in progress.  In terms of finished work, spreading resources starts behind and stays behind the focused allocation of resources and leaves more work in progress at any given time.  The differences in completed products and work in progress get progressively worse with time.


What this means is that you must use whole system thinking in working to build the structure to execute the strategy to achieve the goal, while establishing a winning culture, and you must carry out this work with focus on the most important things first.  The journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step.  The goal must inspire you to want to go that “1,000 miles.”  The strategy must show that the journey is possible.  The structure must make the path clear and sustainable.  Focusing on the right steps in the right direction along the path will build momentum and confidence in the path.  It takes focused action and whole system thinking to make the entire journey.  For safety and customer satisfaction, that road may go on forever, and the longer the road the more important it is to start now.


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Goal, Strategy and Structure

In the introduction to this series of articles, I defined the a “winning culture” and said that building one requires a goal, a strategy for achieving the goal, a structure for executing the strategy and habit patterns where people tend to do the right things, even when there are no applicable guidelines and no one is watching.

In this article, I will describe the goal, the strategy and the structure – the “why”, the “what” and the “how” for the journey toward a winning culture. The goal needs to be inspiring enough to make people want to get better at what they do and to be willing to do things differently in order to get better.

The goal needs to call people to their highest purpose – something that will be deeply satisfying to them personally and professionally.  Amazon’s vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.  Disney has been successful for decades with the simple goal of making people happy.

As Simon Sinek says in his book Why, leaders have to “talk the talk” about the inspiring goal and their deepest beliefs about it in order to attract to them people who believe what they believe.  Leaders and their followers, who believe what they believe, must all “walk the talk” about the importance of the inspiring goal so that everyone else can see that the talk is not just talk.

You will need more than a charismatic leader with a lofty goal.  As an oil field worker in West Texas once told me after a presentation on a new safety program, “people are watching what you do more than what you say.”

In addition to commitment to an inspiring goal, you will need a strategy for achieving it.  The strategy must be clearly linked to the goal and focused enough to be achieved with the available resources.  Strategic objectives should be few (five at most – preferably three or less).  Companies that undertake 10 or more strategic objectives or major change efforts usually accomplish none of them within any reasonable time frame.

The strategy will be more readily accepted if it is supported with hard data.  For example, the International Helicopter Safety Team’s (IHST) strategy for preventing helicopter accidents is focused on safety management systems, training, systems & equipment and maintenance practices.

The IHSTs strategy is supported by the analysis of over 1,000 helicopter accidents by its regional teams around the world.  Go to for more information on this example. The structure for executing the strategy should, in most cases, reflect the Shewart/Deming cycle of “plan, do, check, act” or other typical quality management approach.  This structure should typically include a documented and accessible management system with clear definition of objectives (e.g., mission and vision), core values, critical roles & responsibilities, key processes and procedures, including reporting and review, and a change management process.   Competent resources must be provided to carry out the critical activities.

To get everyone to appreciate the need for this management system, you must engage the entire workforce in evaluating risks and building the management system, starting with the biggest risks.  Risks to people, assets, the environment and your company’s reputation can arise from safety hazards, business and financial performance requirements, legal issues, political instability and other hazards.  Use the reporting and review processes to continuously improve.

Even with an inspiring goal, a clear and focused strategy and the key structural support for executing the strategy, the workplace culture can reject the change effort much like the human body rejects a mismatched organ transplant.

In the next article, we will explore how to overcome the natural human resistance to change.

Intro to Winning Culture

More and more people in all types of work are talking about how to improve workplace culture.  Discussions about culture are especially common when the aim is improved safety or customer service.

For more than 25 years I have been directly engaged in efforts by large and small companies to change their culture for one reason or another.  I have been to training courses, participated in workshops, worked in and led improvement projects, had executive coaches and read countless books on the subject.

In this introduction and the next posts to follow, I want to share with you what I have learned and point you to the best current references so that you can create a winning culture in your workplace.  I define a “winning culture” as one where all stakeholders (customers and suppliers) enjoy rewards and recognition for excellent performance – everybody is winning.

A winning culture is then, by definition, a sustainable, healthy culture because everyone is doing their best for themselves and everyone else.  The flip side of this definition is that there are no “losers” in a winning culture – no one is taking unfair advantage of anyone else.

I have seen many efforts to change workplace culture fail because they did not put in place all of the essential elements.  I have also seen efforts to change workplace culture fail because they took on too many changes at once.  I have learned that while doing just one thing won’t likely be sufficient, focusing on just one thing at a time is essential to be effective.  I will show that a system of four key elements is necessary and that to put that whole system in place requires focus on the critical few things that will do the most good with the least effort.   If you are among the many who already knew that, I also have some insights from recent research in neuroscience and psychology that can help you use what you already know more effectively.

The whole system for a winning culture requires a goal, a strategy for achieving the goal, a structure for executing the strategy and habit patterns where people tend to do the right things, no matter what the pressures and even when there are no applicable guidelines and no one is watching.  Done right, these four key elements are integral and feed off each other in a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement.

Read my next blog post (Part 1) to explore the goal, the strategy and the structure – the “why”, the “what” and the “how” for the journey toward a winning culture.