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Growth Strategies

A Cautionary Tale

By Matt Edison

During annual strategy meetings managers use all kinds of statistics, projections, charts, and graphs to support and defend their plans for the upcoming year. Culture, the single biggest determinant in the success or failure of a manager’s plans, rarely, if ever, makes it onto the agenda. Defining a company’s culture and changing it to serve the business is the surest way to ensure plans succeed. Ignoring the impact of culture greatly increases the risk of failure.

Wikipedia defines culture as "the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization, or group." Culture may also be practically defined as the combination of written and unwritten operating procedures that describe how things are decided and get done in an organization. Ensuring the culture supports the organization’s objectives improves the odds for success.

Admiral Hyman Rickover, Founder of the United States Naval Reactor Program, converted nuclear detonation technology into nuclear propulsion technology in five years marked by the launch of the USS Nautilus in 1954. He accomplished this incredible feat by instilling what some have called "the discipline of engineering" into his program from the outset.  Admiral Rickover used specific tactics to create a culture that supported his program objectives.

Before testing a new design for a radiation shield, for example, Admiral Rickover required scientists to predict what level of radiation would pass through at all points on the shield. Regardless of whether a value was higher or lower than expected, scientists had to do their best to explain the deviation. In this way, all experiments and all results were opportunities for the organization to greatly improve nuclear propulsion knowledge in a very short time. The culture of the organization with its specific systems and the Admiral’s leadership ensured the program’s success.

Atul Gawande in Complications describes how teaching hospitals create doctors with their culture. Mandatory weekly all hands reviews of incidents from the past week are one specific way attending doctors and residents review what procedures or diagnoses went wrong and why so everyone can benefit from mistakes. Attending doctors describe the mistakes their residents make in part because they are responsible and in part because they don’t want their residents to stop trying from fear of having to describe their failures to a room full of experienced doctors.

What’s not specifically stated is that making a mistake, while not desirable, is an accepted part of learning. The unwritten doctrine states that the teaching hospital exists to train doctors and not to have only the best doctors treat patients. This culture supports the hospital’s goal of creating competent doctors through hands-on training.

If new market research or new product development is a priority for the organization, is there an appropriate mechanism in place to ensure progress? One specialty manufacturer held biweekly production meetings designed to review plans and progress for how to fill existing orders. While this is expected for any manufacturer, at this company this meeting was also attended by the president, business managers, and R&D managers. There was no similar regular meeting for new product development or new market research. It was felt that the individuals responsible would take care of those initiatives and that most of the R&D and manufacturing issues for new product development were covered during the production meetings.

Over time it became clear that product development efforts and especially new market research efforts were suffering due to the constant focus from the regular production meetings. R&D and business managers had to spend time to be 100% informed on production issues before the production meeting to demonstrate command of their areas to the president who attended the meeting. Through the regular production meetings the culture was tuned to order fulfillment. A regular new market research and new product development meeting attended by the president would help to change the culture and speed up those efforts. 

Three elements are necessary for successfully aligning culture and objectives. The first is a thorough understanding of the obvious and the unstated policies and procedures that drive daily decisions and actions. The second is a careful analysis of what cultural changes are required to make the desired objectives a reality. Third, management must commit to making the changes habit, constantly reinforcing the desired new behaviors that will lead to the successful realization of the desired objectives. Without due consideration of the existing culture, the best ideas from the brightest managers will ultimately fail.

Matt Edison works as the Reactive Silicones Business Manager for Gelest, a specialty chemical manufacturer north of Philadelphia. In his current role, Matt leads business development projects, manages the silicone technology group, and improves company business systems. His special interest in improving organizational performance to realize customer opportunities can be seen throughout his accomplishments and is the impetus for these articles. Since 1989, Matt has also worked for DuPont, General Chemical, and Inolex Chemical where his roles included Plant Manager and Engineering Manager, among others. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (267) 312-3537.

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