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200 million – that is the number of companies in the world. The number of other organizations probably doubles that, and each one of them has its own “Culture”*. Few doubt that culture is a powerful force in organizations, yet organizations with strong cultures have VERY different ideas on the subject. Bridgewater Associates believe great culture centers around constant feedback, and Koch Industries believes in aligned and unlimited incentives. At GE, Jack Welch believed in single-minded focus across GE’s mighty divisions, while Disney drove its success on a separation between internal company space and the “stage” of customer interaction space. Contrast this with the Quakers, who believe that no decision of consequence can be made without unanimous agreement.

Ray Dalio, Charles Koch, Jack Welch and Walt Disney are legendary for both their company’s successes and for the cultures they instilled in their organizations. But the starkly different approaches raise questions: Are these the best cultures? What other options exist? Are these cultures really good, or were other factors responsible for company success, and the culture bit was just something people muddled through? What would happen if we had a really good culture compared to what we have now? How would we go about changing our culture? And how does that fit in with Lean?

Raised as a scientist, and transformed through Lean, my work over the past few years has focused on culture. This journey from scientist to “culture guy” has reinforced some interesting observations along the way, the most interesting one to date is this:

You already know what a GREAT organizational culture looks like. You have already experienced it, if only in parts, all throughout your life.

The second less fortunate observation is that you probably do not work in that great culture right now.

Let’s take the first bit. With few exceptions, each one of us has been steeped in great micro-cultures. A classroom that enabled you to flourish, a sports team that operated as a unified whole, a musical group that held each other in great esteem while challenging each other to create something magical in concert. A grandparent that nurtured a talent within you. Each of these relies on essentially the same bedrock. Each of them is a place where people can give their utmost, and at the same time, gain the best for themselves. Each is supportive, kindly demanding but not directive, open, inquiring, inclusive, engaging, etc., etc. It turns out, sociological studies demonstrate that what feels good to us as participants (not necessarily leaders) and enables us to thrive as people and teams is common across humanity. A company called “Human Synergistics” has created a survey that generates a map for understanding organizational culture. Their survey, given to thousands of organizations (companies, government agencies, schools and more) show that everyone in every culture in every language studied, values the same working culture. Everyone. It is shocking. And kind of cool because:

  • We don’t have to develop what great work environment looks like. We all know what it is.
  • We only have to develop how to implement it in our organization.


Refining this a bit further with the help of the Center for Evidence Based Management**, some cultural elements emerge as statistically relevant to knowledge worker performance. You will immediately recognize these elements in your life examples. They include (among other things):
  1. Sense of belonging
  2. Group goals
  3. Leadership support for you and for innovation/creativity itself
  4. Psychological safety
  5. Team empowerment


  6. Compare these to your personal experiences.

    Did you feel like you belonged on your team? Did you feel worthy to be on the team and be a part of its success? Of course you did. And moreover, it probably made you feel great and made you think about how you could do more.

    Did your group have a goal? Did your music group had the goal of providing unique, even exquisite entertainment? Did your sports team had the goal of winning? Did your social group had the goal of helping the community in a particular way? I would bet it did.

    Did your grandparent provide support for you? Did they support your personal growth and trying new things? How about your coach or conductor? I am sure that you had support of leadership, coaches or mentorship, and they supported you in creating new things along the way.

    Did you feel safe telling your grandparent that you didn’t know how to do something, that you were afraid of failing or that it wouldn’t work? What did they do when you shared your vulnerabilities? People feel safe to explore, to share and make mistakes in great teams.

    Did you feel like you could make your own decisions in your jazz improv solo? Did you have the freedom to take a rest or hit a note, follow the melody or make a new line, parrot the main beat or syncopate? Did your grandparent let you design that item? Did your team let you decide how to shoot the ball or puck? Great cultures give freedom in how to do the jobs at hand. Sometimes with structure (we all use multiple-option, data-driven decision making, for example), but never by dictat.

    Each one of these elements has demonstrated strong, positive influence on productivity of knowledge work in multiple studies with statistical significance. Moreover, each one of these elements is free to implement, and not especially difficult to imagine how you would implement it in nearly any environment. Each one of them is something that, when implemented, creates the environment for Lean PD to operate at its highest level.

    * ”Culture” is a pretty charged word in the Organizational Development and sociology fields. It turns out, nobody can really define what “culture” means, so there is no real evidence for “culture” affecting organizational performance. But there is a TON of evidence that elements of culture that can be seen, implemented and reinforced to drive performance. The field calls these things “climate”. Great. But the rest of us call it “culture”, so with an apology to sociology, I will stick with the term we all know and love.

    ** The Center for Evidence Based Management is terrific. It is a non-profit devoted to building, searching and providing scientifically valid evidence for one management practice or other, or the scientific evidence that said practice has no or even negative effect.

    Terry will keynote at LPPDE North America 2019, Jekyll Island about this topic.

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Design & realization: Mooiwurk.nl