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Creating a Workplace Culture

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First, some background…

I work for a very large corporation that manages the supply chains of various companies all over the world. When we take over a supply chain, this is referred to as an ‘implementation’. My title is Implementations Process Writer which is fairly self-explanatory. I write work instructions for our operators so that they can perform their jobs more effectively. I find the work interesting because, as part of the implementation team, I get to work with engineers, IT, operations managers, quality managers and many other individuals depending on the scope of the work. An average implementation takes about a year and my engagement happens usually 4-6 months out from the ‘go live’ date. As a management employee with 15 years of experience, I am expected not just to perform my core job function, but also to provide my perspective on problems when I think I can contribute.

Many of my coworkers studied business management or industrial engineering and so their minds work much different than my own. As I have shared on this site before, my academic background is in the social sciences.On the best days our different backgrounds provide a balance in the work we do. While many of my coworkers approach our projects from a business perspective first, my default setting is always to think of the cultural impact. They see process flows and hard data and I consider the human factor, which leads me to the theme of this post.

Right now we are in the middle of a huge multi-state project. As part of the project we are opening a new facility for our customer in New Hampshire. My company does not have a large footprint in New Hampshire, since most of our large facilities are either in Louisville or Atlanta. This new facility is special in that it will employee a workforce of over 200 people who are almost all newly hired. Because it will exist on an island of sorts, away from our large corporate centers, it will have its own culture.

One thing we have talked a lot about recently is language. There are three sources for the jargon that will be used in the facility. One source will be our customer. We need our employees to use the same terminology when they speak to them about the business. We need to call a widget the same thing they call it. If their software has a function called DOTHIS then we must also call it DOTHIS. The next source of language comes from our own internal workspeak. The terms we use are sometimes different from our customers and the employees will have to learn that as well. Lastly, we have the language used by our vendor who is designing much of the automation technology for the facility. We have the most flexibility here because the vendor has allowed us to help with the final design of the software and we can suggest changes to the wording in most places.Even then, if there is a problem we need to be able to tell them what it is using their own terminology.

The challenge we face is in choosing which language to use in a certain scenario and also in teaching the employees to be ‘bilingual’. My job as a process writer is to help facilitate this. Sometimes we bend towards the customer’s needs and sometimes we insist on leaning in our direction. It is a fine line to walk.The writing I do for my job is much different than the writing I do here, but in both cases it requires careful forethought to convey ideas in a clear way.

In addition to language, there is the workplace social culture. New Hampshire is not Louisville and Louisville is not Atlanta. Our corporate offices exist in Atlanta, so they have a higher degree of formality in some respects, but our average employee is also more friendly thanks to good Southern manners. In Louisville we like to think of ourselves as the leading edge of the business because we are doing some of the most innovative work. We also have a huge workforce so we can throw a lot of labor at problems when we need to. We tend to see all problems as solve-able because we have the strength of numbers.Our local culture is that of a corporate powerhouse where we see no task that we cannot accomplish (for better or worse).

In New Hampshire we will draw many employees from the Boston area. These employees will have varying degrees of education and work experience and their own personal histories will be a variable to consider. The funniest conversation I have heard recently was between a team member from the North Shore and one of our engineers who grew up in rural Kentucky. There were so many dropped R’s and G’s that it would have made a grammar teacher blush. We have different ways of doing things. In my experience the Southerners tend to be a bit more patient (sometimes too patient) and the Northerners tend to be a bit more focused (sometimes too focused). When I am explaining things I don’t know if they care for using analogies to illustrate my points and I sometimes wish they were less inclined to talk business at during lunch.

There are certain elements of our corporate culture which we insist upon in all of our facilities. We pride ourselves on being a very safe company. Whereas our customer may have one safety standard for the guy that drives the forklift, we may have a more stringent policy. We also have our internal HR process, which includes things like pay scale, dispute resolution, chain-of-command, etc. Both of our companies are quite old and habits are hard to change.

What will be unique to this facility is the things I cannot write into a document and that our corporate office cannot codify. We can’t tell a manager how to motivate his workforce. We can’t tell a floor supervisor how to interact with their employees. We can’t predict how a local hourly employee expects to be treated.

It’s one thing to start a new company and consciously create a workplace culture from the start. It is quite another to open a new facility within the structure of a company that has existed for over 100 years and which has pre-existing facilities all over the globe. That makes everything we are doing both familiar and new. From an anthropological standpoint, the best analogy I can make is that of a colony. Once upon a time a settler in Jamestown was very much an English place. By the time of the Declaration of Independence an ‘American’ culture had begun to form. Even then though, each of the original thirteen had their own local idiosyncrasies. I suspect that eventually this new facility will be much like a colony. It will have elements, both acquired naturally and insisted upon by the corporate office, and those things which make it unique. The first year of this facility’s existence will set the tone in many of these areas and I will find it fascinating to observe.

Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at mikedwyerwrites.com. You can also find him on Facebook. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.

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8 thoughts on “Creating a Workplace Culture

  1. Interesting post Mike. I’ve seen and experienced some of this as well. I once transferred to an operating company from the corporate office. This operating company was purchased by my corporation 10 years earlier, and the culture had not changed on iota. Information I could routinely get from HR/Mngt in every other part of my corporation was flatly denied when I asked in this company.

    Then there was the time I worked with French, American, and Brits and learned a lot about the differences in how each of those cultures work, interpret phrases, and carry on.

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  2. This is interesting. I’d be interested in hearing about how sense of identity (rather than just the identity itself) plays into all this, as well. There is an impulse in groups to resist merging cultures, to amplify the differences between approaches rather than break them down. New Hampshire needs to feel different from the rest of the company as much as it needs to feel the same. It may even be the case that NH needs to impact the Louisville culture. I guess I’m talking about a fourth language that has to play a role, the language the NH people currently use. Do you find that to be the case? That a new facility needs to retain some of its own culture to promote a sense of ownership?

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    • Usually the new facility will have the ability to impact the culture in older facilities. In many ways these new operations become laboratories where we test out ideas and innovations based on lessons learned in the older locations. Then, if it is successful, we can bring those things back and begin to retrofit our older facilities, both physically and from a process standpoint.

      I definitely believe they need to create and retain some of their own culture. What that will look like is where I am very interested to observe.

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      • How much interaction with there be between NH and KY (or GA)? If each location runs more or less independently with some key players going back and forth, my hunch is that those key players will be the folks who are most adept at engaging cross-culturally.

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        • The level of interaction remains to be seen but this new facility is a pretty big deal. I expect they will get a lot more attention that they really want. All of our top execs will want to show it off to potential new clients and it will be in their interest to make sure it runs well. In that respect, they will have more influence from corporate than usual.

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  3. I am increasingly fond of the iceberg metaphor when thinking about culture. See an example here: http://www.oh-i-see.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Cultural-Iceberg-2.jpg

    We tend to focus on the visible parts and often for good reason. But there is so much more to it. Interestingly enough, Mike, you demonstrate some key ‘underwater’ cultural elements, perhaps without even noticing it.

    For instance, you spoke about the different languages. What I immediately noticed was that when you were on the “vendor” side, you deferred to the client. And yet, when you were on the “client” side of your vendor, there was still some deference there. And you state that this isn’t just your personal belief, but something the company believes in. This communicates quite a bit about the underlying culture of the company, namely that it aims to truly partner with and work collaboratively with other groups. And I bet you, consciously or not, avoid hiring or retaining employees who don’t embody this spirit.

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    • At some point, lack of cooperation just creates its own grief. As a customer, you have to understand the supplier, and as a supplier, you absolutely have to understand the customer, and have to make sure the customer realizes it. It’s rare for an organization to have the kind of control to determine what everyone in the industry thinks, or talks like, or buys. If the industry is near the end of its life cycle, maybe the patterns are so well-established that you only have to abide by them, but even that entails conforming to outside standards. But most expansion occurs where the standards and culture is evolving quickly, and success in that environment requires understanding and good communication.

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  4. This is interesting stuff. I think it’s a real boon to your company that you’re not just thinking about this stuff as an abstract concept but as a real, tangible issue requiring some awareness. Eg., what aspects of work-place culture are within your power to control and what aspects are necessary for a functioning facility? That may sound overly vague, but I’ve been going thru some of these issues with my wife and her business partners and getting past the vagueness – down to specifics – is a really hard thing to do. Even relatively obvious ones – like consistent use of context-based language – are hard to address.

    Long story skipped right over: shaping a business culture is really hard without focusing on the purpose, expectations, goals (collective, individual), etc., of each person in the context of the role they’re being paid to play. Or maybe the better way to say it is that not focusing on those things allows for a more organic culture to emerge, one which may not be consistent with the overall goals of the business but ends up being harder to change.

    Actually, not sure how to say it….

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