Culture – From the Bottom Up

Earlier this week, I posted a story of top down culture that changed a business. The sad moral was that top down culture works, even if the culture is one that leaves bodies – in the thousands – in its wake. Of course the business was not sustainable under that culture, but that wasn’t the objective of the leader.

But I have also seen bottom up culture work. And that is a much better story.

In one of the plant start-ups I worked on, we were determined to be a model of safety for the company. We were going to achieve beyond what our other plants had ever shown in regard to safe performance. We all had the will, but we did not have the skill – the knowledge base to make it so. Our mill manager was not interested in having a safety leader for the mill, because traditionally that was the person that people held accountable for safety. We wanted everyone to be accountable.

Bet we did hire someone with some essential experience in creating and sustaining changes in safety performance. And, since we were a start up, we interviewed all employees with an eye toward those who took personal accountability for their actions and for safety in the workplace.

As we began developing safety rules and guidelines, we went through the standard checklists. Hearing protection – required. Steel-toed safety shoes were a must. But what about safety glasses? We never required them in our mills before, only in certain areas.

Thomas was one of our new employees. “You’re kidding, right? If we don’t require glasses from the start, how many eye injuries, and to what severity, will we accept before we do institute a rule requiring them?”

What was really awesome about his comment was that it was based in the principles we had developed to govern safety. He got it, and it brought a quick end to the debate.

Over the next 10 years, that same facility set the standard for safety performance. Practices developed there became standard practices elsewhere, and the same three safety principles that were established to govern safety behavior there were eventually adopted at the corporate level. Our CEO refers to them a couple times a year in his blog, and he  reminds his senior leaders of them regularly.

When people ask about culture change, I tell the story of Thomas speaking up, and allowing common sense to prevail. His contribution to that one discussion helped many people understand the value of having core safety principles – obligations we call them – and it has rippled through our organization.

Culture can move upward. It requires managers who are willing to learn, to share ideas that aren’t their own, and to be big enough to accept ideas from the shop floor.

I’ve seen it, and it’s a beautiful thing.

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