An improvement culture is not….

In order to talk about what a culture for improvement might look like and what unwritten rules it might have, it may be useful to begin by considering what it is not. We talk of various types of bad cultures to explain failures; blame cultures, macho cultures, cultures of secrecy etc.

Working in a culture that does not promote improvement could include:

  • Slow and unresponsive decision making processes that are not understood
  • Not even getting the basics sorted out
  • Not sharing information
  • Seeing training and development as a cynical way of ticking the “empowered workforce” box
  • Acceptance of inefficient systems that someone tried to change 5 years ago; “there’s no point in mentioning that, nothing will happen”
  • Keeping your head down and doing the minimum required of you

An improvement culture is:

There is a lot of discussion about the characteristics of a culture that promotes innovation and improvement. The following 7 points are the features found to be important for an improvement culture.

Customer centeredness

Customers are at the centre of everything your team does and are considered important partners. Staff continually strive to see things through the eyes of the custome

Belief in human potential

It is people who drive success, using their creativity, energy and innovation. Therefore an improvement culture values people and encourages their professional and personal development. Staff are involved in decision making because it is recognised that it those who are closest to the customer often have the best knowledge of problems

Improvement and innovation encouraged

The saying “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” does not apply as the team is constantly searching for new ways of improving things. There is an absence of complacency. People are encouraged and enabled to improve things and experimentation and flexibility are valued

Recognition of the value of learning

 People are encouraged to be proactive problem solvers and learners. In an improvement culture:

    • Everyone demonstrates the ability to be self critical and learn from mistakes
    • Personal responsibility and accountability are regarded as extremely important
    • Evidence from a variety of sources is used to guide sales and marketing
    • Knowledge is shared throughout the team
    • A tolerance of constantly poor performance is not regarded as acceptable

Effective team working

Real teams are where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts, no individual or particular groups dominate proceedings and people work together for the benefit of the business


 The importance of informal channels and personal contacts are acknowledged. People are “kept in the loop” on important decisions and how these decisions have been made is clearly communicated to everyone

Honesty and trust

For individuals to give their best, take risks and develop their skills, they must trust that such activities will be appreciated and valued by colleagues and Managers. In turn, Managers must be able to trust that others will use wisely the time, space and resources given to them. Without trust, no improvement can take place.

Therefore, in an organisation that has a culture of improvement, staff will tell you about problems that have been solved, people who have been supported, and poor Managers who have been developed or left. They will talk about their Managers as people who trust them to use their initiative to bring about improvements but who they know will support them when mistakes occur. They will be able to tell of the terrible clangers as well as the successful changes they have helped to introduce. They will feel that they contributed to change rather than someone who came along and did it to them. They will talk of the difficulties in running such a complex organisation with so many competing demands.

“Let a thousand flowers bloom” offers an apt metaphor for innovation and change. Innovations, like flowers, start from tiny seeds and have to be nurtured carefully until they blossom; then their essence has to be carried elsewhere for the flowers to spread….they can grow wild, springing up weed like despite unfavourable circumstances, but they can be cultivated, blossoming under favourable conditions. If we understand what makes innovations grow, we can see why some conditions are better for their cultivation” Moss Kanther R.


How to understand your own culture?

The process of creating an improvement culture starts by understanding the way things are done within your team. This is not easy because people are often not aware of their culture or the subject might even be regarded as not open for discussion.

Using metaphors and frameworks

Metaphors and frameworks provide a language and a common perspective in which people can start to talk and se everyday things in a fresh light. They can also make the topic of culture safe for discussion because staff will often say things using a framework or a metaphor that they would not feel comfortable talking about directly. In this sense, these methods can be useful, worthwhile and fun.


If your organisation were:

  • An animal, which animal would it be and why?
  • A plant; which plant would it be and why?
  • A car; which car would it be and why?
  • A Family; who would play what role and why? Who would be the Mother, Father, younger sister, older brother, mother- in law and distant aunt?

This framework describes 4 major culture types to help you understand the cultures of your team

Competing values framework (Cameron and Quinn 1999)

The clan culture 

A very friendly place to work where people share a lot of themselves. It is like an extended family. The leaders are considered to be mentors and perhaps even parent figures. The place is held together by loyalty and tradition. Commitment is high. The long term benefit of human resources development is emphasised and great importance is attached to cohesion and morale. Success is defined in terms of sensitivity to customers and concern for staff.  A premium is placed on teamwork, participation and consensus

The Development culture 

A dynamic, entrepreneurial and creative place to work. People stick their necks out and take risks. The Leaders are considered innovators and risk takers. The glue that holds the place together is commitment to experimentation and innovation. The emphasis is being on the leading edge and on growth and development. Success is about developing unique and effective products or services, therefore, being a product or service leaders is important. Individual initiative and freedom is encouraged

The Hierarchy culture 

A very formalised and structured place to work. Procedures govern what people do. The leaders pride themselves on being good coordinators and organisers who are efficiency minded. Maintaining a smooth running organisation is most critical. Formal rules and policies hold the place together. The long term concern is on stability and performance, with efficient smooth operations. Success is defined in terms of dependable delivery, smooth scheduling and low costs. The management of staff is concerned with secure employment and predictability

 The Market culture 

A results orientated place whose major concern is with getting the job done. People are competitive and goal orientated. The leaders are hard drivers, producers and competitors. They are tough and demanding. The glue that holds everyone together is an emphasis on winning. Reputation and success are common concerns. The long terms focus is on achievement and measurable goals and targets. The style is hard driving competition

Building and nurturing an improvement culture

A successful culture can only be built and nurtured, not managed and controlled. New ways of thinking and working can be introduced, but these new ways will only become embedded within the team if they enable people to work more effectively than before. Effective culture change, therefore, is about building and nurturing an environment that allows culture change to occur naturally.

When trying to encourage the adoption of a new way of doing things, make sure that expectations are realistic. Culture change cannot be delivered overnight so do not try to change things too rapidly

Basic principles

Before starting to build your culture of improvement, there are several basic principles that you must bear in mind. These principles are essential to incorporate into your overall approach if you are to be successful.

Actions speak louder than words

Matching what you say and do, especially in times of crisis and stress, is fundamental to successful culture change. Practicing what you preach is most powerful at senior levels within the organisations such as team Leader, Department Head or Director. Staff who show the behaviours they are trying to introduce in the organisation are more likely to be effective. Most staff cynicism is due to inconsistent behaviour in relation to values

Make sure you have the right kind of people to deliver the required change

Culture change is most effective when it is led by a senior person within your team and supported by the team. You have to be courageous, can do and people orientated. Leading a culture change initiative requires a high degree of emotional intelligence and the ability to mange yourself and your relationships with other effectively.

This ability is made up of:

  • Excellent self awareness
  • Empathy
  • Political awareness
  • Influencing skills
  • Conflict management skills
  • The ability to maintain your focus when the going gets tough

People live what they have helped to create

Culture change is everyone’s business and responsibility. It is not the sole responsibility of the Team Leader, Head of Department or Management team. Contributing positively should be a personal objective for every single employee in the organisation. Ownership is mainly created through involvement and participation. Therefore, engage people as meaningful contributors and incorporate them fully into the principle challenges facing your team

Say what is not said

Any meaningful attempt at culture change must bring to the surface and ultimately challenge the unwritten rules that are operating within the team or the wider organisation. It is these implicit rules that are ultimately driving what is done within your team and if they are not addressed then nothing will change

Four steps to building an improvement culture

Any culture change initiative should aim for a balance between continuity and renewal, identifying those cultural values, behaviours and unwritten rules that need to be kept and reinforced, and those that need to be reworked. Use these 4 steps:

  • Decide what needs to change and what needs to stay the same
  • Describe what an “improvement culture” means and doesn’t mean
  • Define the new way of doing things in terms of practice
  • Test out the news ways of working

STEP 1: Decide what needs to change and what needs to stay the same

Start by taking the nest of where you are at the present time. Many valuable cultural traits already exist on which any new improvement culture can build.

These might include for example:

  • A strong belief in customer service
  • A growing willingness to share examples of good practice

Before organising an activity, consider:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What is their prior knowledge?
  • Is the location and timing of the activity correct?
  • Recognise and value that participants will want to work and learn in different ways. Try to provide information and activities to suit all learning preferences

STEP 2: Describe what an “improvement culture” means and doesn’t mean

An improvement culture means:

  • Being dynamic
  • Creating an environment where risk taking is safe
  • Encouraging creative alternatives
  • Making change the rule not the exception
  • Being flexible and adaptive
  • Trying new ideas
  • Becoming a forward looking organisation
  • Adopting a bolder approach to innovation

An improvement culture does not mean:

  • Allowing everybody to do as they wish
  • Running the organisation recklessly
  • Disregarding the needs of the customer
  • Tolerating selfishness
  • Having complete freedom
  • Missing goals
  • Having the latest of everything

STEP 3; Define the new ways of doing things in practice

Translate your values and unwritten rules into behavioural actions for everyone such as:

  • Clearly explain the basis for decisions
  • Express appreciation when people do something well, and dissatisfaction when something does not go well
  • Pay careful attention without interrupting when people are trying to make a point
  • Summarise areas of agreement and mutual interest
  • Admit to and learn from mistakes
  • Try to clarify and explore points on which people differ or disagree
  • State individual needs and expectations clearly
  • Keep people attention on issues they regard as important
  • Define the “simple rules” for the culture you want and say what is required, what is prohibited and what is allowed

STEP 4: Test out new ways of working

Ask these key questions as you are testing out new ways of working:

  • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • How will we know that a change is an improvement?
  • What change can we make that will result in an improvement?