Seek understanding

You have to know the existing culture before you can begin to change it," advises Bill Maggard. And failure to recognize this simple truth has been the downfall of many efforts to institute change.
By Richard L. Dunn, Editor October 1, 2000

You have to know the existing culture before you can begin to change it,” advises Bill Maggard. And failure to recognize this simple truth has been the downfall of many efforts to institute change.

Bill Maggard should know what he’s talking about. He’s a recognized expert on industrial maintenance organization and performance. After successfully instituting a Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) program at Tennessee Eastman that became a model for many such programs, Bill has shared his knowledge through a book and hundreds of presentations. Now an internal consultant for capacity assurance at International Paper, Bill qualifies as an expert in how to accomplish change.

Bill’s observations strike me as particularly timely these days when so many companies are rushing to embrace change. I think it’s pretty true of any successful company today that it’s constantly evolving and, hopefully, improving. And many companies are trying to bring about massive change, to reinvent themselves with new approaches to how they do business.

But every instance of massive or corporate change requires countless smaller changes by small groups. It’s in these groups that the real cultures reside, and it’s in these groups where the successes or failures of the larger programs hinge. And in the end, there is no group commitment without individual commitment.

To begin to change a culture, we need to seek to know the existing culture, not just on the macro level, but down to the micro level and even the individual level.

Using a map to help you find your way to a destination is pointless if you can’t identify where you are now. To lay out a route, you have to know both the beginning and the ending.

In my experience, it appears too many organizational leaders think that having identified the goal-the destination-they can leave it to others to find the way there. When the goal isn’t reached, they’re puzzled. Where they so often fail is in identifying the starting point, in knowing the existing culture.

The lesson here, I think, is that for all of us who would seek change, we must first seek understanding.