We’re All In This Together

Company culture is real. It has a definite effect on the success of a business.

Columns From: 6/1/2006 Modern Machine Shop, ,

Company culture is real. It has a definite effect on the success of a business. I become more convinced of this the more businesses I get to know. I would even say that “plant culture” and “department culture” are real. Just as companies differ, different groups within the same company can also have different levels of effectiveness at marshalling the energies of their people.

I have been looking for some special ingredient common to the many plants and businesses I’ve found that seem to have healthy, forward-moving cultures. The question is particularly relevant to U.S. manufacturing, given the pessimism with which manufacturing is too often viewed in this country. The many thriving manufacturers whose successes outshine this pessimism do have a culture of optimism in common, but I think the special ingredient that unites them is even more specific than this. Those manufacturers have an optimism that is shared. Better, they have a sense of shared adventure.

Any work is an adventure—provided the stakes are high enough. However, manufacturing is one of the most honest adventures of all. Its challenges involve reconciling hard physics with real-world economics, and succeeding at this means nothing less than marshaling the physical world to your service. In the healthiest manufacturing cultures, every employee shares in that struggle directly, and every employee gets to realize this success.

In other words, every employee is a leader. Similarly, every employee is a manager. Maybe they don’t manage people—most of them don’t—but they do view their own components of the process the way a manager or business leader would view them. In addition to looking inward at their jobs, they look outward at the world their company and customers see, and the way they perform their work directly responds to this view. The line between labor and management in such a culture thus becomes fuzzier, with the role of the formal manager becoming more vague. That role also becomes more valuable.

The formal manager is the steward of this culture. If employees are to be trusted, then someone needs to give them that trust. If employees are to view reality directly, then they need the candor and the access to information that lets them develop this view. In the modern manufacturing facility, in other words—where staffing is light and employee value is high—a seemingly universal principle takes on particular significance. Leadership consists of letting others be leaders themselves.

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