Few things are as exciting as seeing a business really embrace change.
It’s about more than just setting up a change management team or sending your leadership group on brainstorming retreats. It’s about creating a culture of change throughout the organization, one that goes beyond an elite band of managers and project leaders to create a truly transformative and innovative culture.
Creating that culture can be hard, but it’s worth it for the results.
Since the post-war founding of the Toyota production system, the car industry has been at the forefront of business change. Toyota’s approach, and that of the lean thinking that followed it, was one of constant self-reflection and improvement.
From endlessly examining the systems in place for waste to engaging everyone in a cycle of diagnosis and improvement, Toyota built change into the very fabric of its business so that a change culture naturally arose from it.
The power of the Toyota approach was that it was not reliant on one single person.
While key leaders had a big impact, those leaders couldn’t be constantly present in every part of the organization. A change culture allowed their presence to be felt even in their absence and ensured that change kept happening even when there wasn’t a project manager there to drive it. Improvement was continuous.
It’s an approach that has been relearnt more recently in the same industry, this time by Hyundai. Chung Mong-Koo’s success in turning the business around has depended on flattening out organizational hierarchies and remodeling entire processes, turning the whole culture into one of change.
Dissociating change from the intervention of leaders also has a benefit in morale and retention.
We all gain satisfaction from problem solving and feeling like we can influence our environment. And so a change culture, by empowering everyone, can provide a huge boost to engagement, retention, and morale.
It might sound perverse to make failure sound good, but it’s an approach that has worked wonders at PBS.
Jason Seiken, PBS’s senior vice president and general manager of digital, demanded failure from all of his employees, going "beyond corporate lip service." And while we don’t all have to take this acceptance of failure as far as PBS, we would all be better off embracing failure every now and then.
A change culture is one that casts off the suffocating shroud of caution and allows risks to be taken. That can only happen if failures are accepted as an inevitable by-product of good work. A company that takes three risks, resulting in two successes and one failure, is a company that’s still ahead of competitors who take no risks at all.
But this is about more than just taking risks. It’s about being ready for the setbacks that hit us all.
For an organization untested in the school of hard knocks, one which does not face regular small failures of its own making, a big externally-driven problem can be disastrous. Morale is battered and the problems are exacerbated as heads role in the aftermath.
Adaptability is not possible without change, so an organization with a change-oriented culture naturally has a higher degree of flexibility.
As General John E. Michel pointed out, flexibility is vital if you are to make the right decisions at the right time.
This is especially true in the digital age and in digital sectors, where the pace of change is frantic and long decision making processes leave companies far behind their competition. A change culture empowers employees to make those decisions for themselves, and so allows the organization to become a leading one.
Embracing a change culture is about more than just making changes quickly—it’s about making them stick. It’s hard work to move to a change culture, but once you’ve made that shift the changes will keep coming.
Redirecting the culture of your business in this way will give it the momentum to keep on changing long after you move on. It will be your pride and your legacy, a self-sustaining system for improvement.
An organization with a change culture is more resilient, more satisfying to work in, and more responsive to the needs of markets and customers. Most of all, it is an organization that will last.
—Mark Lukens is a founding partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. He has 20-plus years of C-Level experience across multiple sectors including health care, education, government, and talent/human resources.