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Insight into companies – culture is what's left

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Business meeting
Published: 21 Mar 2024

Ryan Renard CQP MCQI, QMS Manager at Ontic, takes a closer look at what makes a successful culture in the workplace.

Our environments are hallmarks of our behaviours, driven by our capabilities, beliefs and identity. When we strip back the guises of a business and unveil what is left, we find what culture has formed.

This foundation of any established group of people, whether in business, departments or our daily lives, is represented in what has been created, destroyed and, more critically, maintained.

Cultures are not established overnight; they are built through initiatives, supporting structures, goals and consensus – because, without agreement, no culture can survive.

It is important to remember that anything that is too difficult to maintain is destined for abandonment or replacement. Though we may be fascinated by the deepening complexity of our world, few seek to truly understand it; besides, there is only so much we can know. Innovations and disruptive technologies are created to fill gaps and make our lives easier – we rarely invest in making our lives more difficult without there being a purpose or value. Preferring to err on making things as simple and easy as possible.

How, then, can we spot cultures in businesses without stripping back the veils? Our truest indicators are in what cannot be painted over. We find evidence in the kitchenettes and break-out areas, the wear in the paths and routes taken, in the attendance records and employee turnover.

Everything AND the kitchen sink

Anyone who has been in the military, or knows of the military, is keenly aware that one of the most important practices is making your bed in the morning. It is easy to cast aspersions on this when we see the activity in isolation – but let us look at a broader picture.

Making the bed is often one of the first activities we perform in the morning and it defines our mindset for the rest of the day. If we leave it, it will still be there for us later. Someone must take responsibility for it, or it will not get done. Military personnel are training to keep themselves and others alive, so how reliable would they  if the first action they take in the morning is to move past the first potential task or activity?

OK, OK, we are not in the industry of saving lives... or are we? We all have duties to our customers to provide them with compliant and safe products, though some industries – such as aerospace, oil and gas, and nuclear – are far riskier than others. Our influence on safety may not be prevalent or obvious in our daily working, though it is in our output. So, what is the last thing most of us do before we leave home? Well, it involves our tea and coffee mugs.

Rarely do our mornings start without some form of caffeine. Whether bean or leaf, our days are punctuated by trips to and from our break areas (in itself a place where cultures are reinforced through discussions and chance meetings). At the end of our days, what do we do with our mugs? Do we leave them at our desks? Do we clean and tidy them away? Do we dump them in the sink and leave them for another? Worse still, do we leave them in the meeting rooms we have inhabited before dashing for the door?

Personal responsibility is the acceptance and ownership of what is within your area of influence – what is more in your influence than the impact and mess you make on a daily basis? “How we do anything,” said author Martha Beck, “is the way we do everything.”

"To assess the culture of movement, how freely do the people within the business move around and interact with their environment? How clearly are ‘unnatural’ movements communicated? After all, we all have the same values – we just put them in different orders of importance."

Ryan Renard CQP MCQI, QMS Manager, Ontic

A path less taken

A common analogy within the quality profession is the use of worn grass next to an established path – attempting to denote humanity’s inherent desire to take short cuts. However, our desires are less about the short cut and more about perceived value. We should spend less time thinking about the short cut itself and more time thinking about why it has appeared.

On less-travelled routes, nature will have created its own paths, for what may appear to be no reason. Yet rarely does something exist without purpose. Though, historically, we would have made efficient routes to travel because of a lack of resource and desire to save time, now we create them to fulfil aesthetics, to meet architectural plans or some unknown purpose. When is the last time you turned 90 degrees on the spot by choice?

The established walkways and worn thoroughfares within a business show two key areas of culture – the employees’ perception of what is important and the business’s ability to communicate and meet the needs of its employees. Not all short cuts are noncompliances; how can they be if we are looking to continually improve? After all, nature is not known for its right angles.

To assess the culture of movement, how freely do the people within the business move around and interact with their environment? How clearly are ‘unnatural’ movements communicated? After all, we all have the same values – we just put them in different orders of importance.

How many businesses think of natural human movement beyond Health and Safety with lifting and sitting? How much easier would it be to build walk-ways after we see how people move?

If you aren’t here... put your hand up

Attendance is a difficult subject because people tend to think of it as mandatory. When we need terms such as ‘time theft’ (paying employees for work NOT done), we gain an understanding of working practices within general industry. Yes, people have work to do, clear roles and responsibilities. But they are also human and cannot be optimally working for every second of their lives. Human factors state that we need to work around 80% (six hours worked in an eight-hour day).

Businesses typically have policies on attendance, and leaders and managers are encouraged to minimise absenteeism. These aspects are closely policed, and workforces tend to fear taking too much time off for illnesses, or repercussions from extended periods. Significant time, effort and resources are placed towards the goal of minimising time off, yet rarely are the questions asked about why people are taking this time off.

First, why don’t some people want to be at work? Second, if they are in and clearly unwell, why don’t they think they can take time off? Finally, if there is a pattern has caused it?

We can also apply the same principles to meetings. Why do some people not attend? Why do some people attend and not seek to add value? Though, as an aside, meetings should be reduced when businesses are operating effectively!

Who is and isn’t in work can be a prominent indicator of business culture, and of their leader or manager.

What isn’t said

“What you do,” said author Ralph Waldo Emerson, “speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

Cultures are more prominently displayed in what occurs daily, in established behaviours, in choices made and decisions taken. Look to the places that cannot be disguised. Find indicators that seem innocuous at first. Trace outcome back to behaviour, behaviours to expected outcomes – ask loudly and clearly, why?

Daily tasks completed consistently shows discipline and attention to detail. Natural, human-based movement and actions reduce the expectation and risk of non-human behaviours. Having everyone on site means consistent support.

Quality is far more successful when the seemingly unimportant tasks are taken care of.

Quality is far more consistent when we allow people to be themselves.

Quality is far more effective when everyone is involved and motivated to work.

To know a business’s culture is to know its people, to know what it and they value. What businesses do speaks so loudly, we cannot hear what their employees say.

Auditing – start as you mean to go on

How can auditors ensure that their work is a meaningful and positive experience for the auditee? IRCA Principal Auditor Ryan Renard CQP MCQI takes a closer look.

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