My two cents (or two billion cents!) about Culture

I was recently asked to be part of a panel discussion on culture change which really got me thinking about my experience with culture, positive and negative, right or wrong.

When it comes to maintenance and reliability, I believe having the “right” culture is the ultimate key to success.  I left a job several years ago because the “wrong” culture prevented advancement to maintenance and reliability excellence. I started that job with optimism and high expectations for our new reliability team who were poised to make a HUGE impact to the organization. I was pumped! I was going to change the world (or, perhaps more accurately, be part of a team that would change the world). We started developing tools, finding out where the bad actors were, established a risk matrix, etc.  Fast forward to 3 years later and our team was disbanded, leaving me as the lone “Reliability” person. Management actually wanted me to focus on being a project manager on a construction project rather than lead a reliability review that I had started. The reliability review was on a system that, should it experience a failure would result in a complete shutdown of the entire operation for days, possibly even weeks, with environmental impact and millions of dollars loss. It was an awakening.  I realized that the culture was not where I needed it to be for me to be effective in making a difference.  

I gave my notice. It was an exceedingly difficult decision, but it was the right one. I, alone, could not change the culture of a large organization, and I was miserable living in that type of environment.

I still have regrets, though, and to this day think about what I could have done differently to try to get them to see the forest for the trees.  Because I was low on the org chart, I needed to get to the top and it had to be someone higher in seniority than me (and someone who had been with the company longer). Perhaps I should have reached out to the champion of the project who knew the importance of it and had him speak to my managers as a last resort. Instead, I gave up. It was too difficult for me to take on. The joy I had with my job was gone and my positive spirit and attitude I once had, had vanished. My young children even recognized it, which surprised me, and made me realize that I was making the right decision.

So, what have I learned from this experience about changing culture? Specifically, what have I learned about how to go from a reactive to a proactive culture or as I like to refer to a “culture of improvement”?

  • You need a sponsor. Someone who believes in the initiative and they need to be as high up as possible. Without that, it will be much harder…  Like pushing on a rope.
  • It cannot be a “flavour of the month”
  • Make it simple… start small.
  • Walk the talk!
  • Reward people for doing the right things.
  • Look for small wins and share them to everyone – whether directly involved in the win or not.
  • Recognize that it takes a long time. (like more than 3 years even!)
  • Communication is key. Why is change required? Never stop telling people why, and sharing the wins to prove it.

While there are other recommendations for encouraging a culture of improvement, implementing the above is a start.

Less than 6 months after I gave my notice on that job, there was a failure of the system on which I had been doing a reliability review. The impact of the failure was significant. Millions of dollars lost in operation, maintenance, environmental impact, reputation, and on and on. Someday I hope to see the outcome of that investigation, and I hope culture is mentioned and I hope that the culture has changed, for the sake of the public and the employees.