When I hear and see how often carelessness, laissez-faire attitudes and wrong priorities cause failures, non-quality and waste, I wonder about the quality culture in some organizations. Quality culture, corporate culture, leadership culture, failure culture – we often talk about them, but I rarely hear anything concrete or tangible. Especially where we bemoan the lack of culture, we can seldom say how and by what means we will achieve, develop and improve it. Corporate culture is somehow elusive.

It's All in the Mission Statement

I often come across mission statements. When they are still fresh, I also hear about the mission statement process. The mission statement process was a good one. Jochen Muskalla said so well about mission statements: "Companies list what they miss the most. Whether in the context of assessments or on other occasions when the mission statement was the subject of analysis or discussion, I came up with a question that gave me the best impression of how effective a mission statement is. "What was different after the mission statement was published than before?". The spectrum of answers ranges widely between incomprehension and helplessness; rarely does a clear, meaningful answer arise. "Well, we have a nice mission statement now, better than the old one. You'll find it on the Internet, intranet, in the employee newsletter, and we've printed it on posters." Publication as the final and only step in operationalization. Do managers act differently now, embodying and communicating the values embodied in the mission statement better than before? Have priorities shifted? What do stakeholders experience as new or different about the company's values? Has a better corporate culture, a better quality culture emerged? How can this be recognized? What measures have led to this?

Soft, as if

For many managers and quality managers, culture is largely a blind spot. In the course of their training, studies and continuing education, most of them learn technical basics, organizational theory and leadership theory. Rarely do they hear more about corporate culture than that it exists, that it is important, and that managers have to take care of it. But how, pray tell, would I like to? Most of us lack methods to address the issue effectively. That's why cultural topics in companies are also called soft topics, and the skills we seek for them are called soft skills. I don't like the term soft in this context, it obfuscates the fact that culture work in companies is just as important for success, i.e. hard, as the topics accepted as hard, the skills required are just as tangible as others. Those who have learned how to understand, direct and change human behavior as part of their education, e.g. educators, psychologists or social scientists, are, depending on the industry, rarely in leadership positions or are limited in their impact as culture creators by leaders who tick differently.

For the sub-topic of quality culture, it is aggravated by the fact that it has not addressed, or has inadequately addressed, the regulatory frameworks that have shaped quality management for decades. ISO 9004 uses the term culture several times, mostly as an influencing factor to be considered, once only under the aspect of shaping culture: "Improvement, innovation and learning can be applied to [...] human aspects and culture". Under the heading of quality policy, a kind of quality-related partial mission statement has usually emerged, with statements about customer orientation, improvement and failure culture. Often it remained with the paper, the conversion turned out rather weakly, see above.

Fields of Action for Active Culture Shaping

From my practical experience, two fields of action and one central driver are essential when it comes to actively shaping corporate culture and, as part of it, quality culture. These are the operationalization of values that guide action and the shaping of relationships. The central driver for culture is leadership behavior. This is not to say that employees are less culturally aware than their managers, but the latter are decisive for culture because of their power to shape it. And unfortunately, one direction of action works very well, namely the culture-destroying effect of high-ranking managers. If it is not possible to neutralize these destructive executives in terms of their effect on culture, the scope for improving a corporate or quality culture is enormously limited anyway.

The first step, then, is to operationalize values that guide action. A mission statement that is valid in terms of content, individual to the organization and supported by managers and employees is only the starting point, not the target state of cultural work. Now concrete measures must be taken to ensure that the fixed values really do guide action in the organization. Someone in management must actively scrutinize and observe this over a long period of time (actually always) and immediately stop and, if necessary, sanction any contravention, especially by managers, and recognize and reinforce actions that promote culture.

Furthermore, it is important to positively shape the relationships within and between the important interest groups. These include the relationships between managers, between managers and employees, with customers, and with partners and suppliers. In addition, there may be other relevant groups. Shaping relationships along agreed values and improving them de facto is, of course, not easy and cannot be addressed in a recipe-like manner. A first step is to understand how relationships are currently designed and shaped and what effects this achieves. What is the desirable state and how do we get there?

What Can We as Quality Managers Do?

  • Recognize that culture work in the organization is not a larifari topic, hard, not soft, highly relevant for the quality capability of the organization, not the freestyle, but part of the duty.
  • Respect, support and strengthen those who can address this topic competently due to their qualifications and talent.
  • Helping to identify, analyze, name and "market" cultural issues, related strengths and weaknesses, and resulting potential to decision-makers, i.e., to bring about the realization of the urgency to act.
  • Learn and acquire how to address and develop the organization's cultural issues in a methodologically sound manner.
  • Not tolerating and sanctioning violations of our (agreed upon) values in our direct area of responsibility. Separate from destructive, cultureless bullies or at least massively limit their power and impact.

Have fun and success in your work as a culture creator.

Good luck!

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