How to Measure Culture Change Without Killing It

Jasper Johns 0-9

Jasper Johns 0-9

For someone who’s never been a huge fan of numbers, the topic of measurement has kept me surprisingly busy lately and – to my bigger surprise – interested.

My work (my passion) is to support business and organizational transformation, through social and digital initiatives that mobilize internal or external stakeholders. Corporate activism is a very powerful lever for change. Engaging people at scale in a movement, triggered by a cause, for them to collectively create the change, produces much deeper and more sustainable change than any other transformation approach.

This work is about individuals and communities, perceptions, social dynamics, storytelling, relations... not much about numbers, one might think. But it is also done for a business and organizational performance objective: no one seeks transformation for the sake of transformation itself. Performance is monitored to death through zillions of numbers, but how do you assess the effectiveness of culture change efforts? And, as importantly, how do you measure empowerment through metrics that do not operate as targets, killing the very notion of self-started, purpose-driven activism?

The problem(s) with measurement

In a classic article for the Journal for Strategic Performance Measurement, Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers explain that behaviors – “commitment, focus, teamwork, learning, quality”(...), people paying “attention to those things that contribute to performance (...) are never produced by measurement. They are performance capabilities that emerge as people feel connected to their work and to each other. They are capacities that emerge as colleagues develop a shared sense of what they hope to create together (...). Each of these qualities and behaviors (...) is a choice that people make”. However, “measurement is critical” and the authors provide some insightful perspectives on design criteria for measure processes.

Measurement principles from a field experience

In the organization I work for, we’ve found a solution that could be of interest to others. I will share below the principles that guided us, along with how we translated those into practical metrics.

A global vaccine producer, the company has started about 1.5 year ago a widespread effort to change the way it works. The need for change became obvious at some point from the quality and manufacturing perspective. Despite significant resources, quality was just not improving. The prescriptive, top-down, controlling and risk-adverse work culture had become an obstacle to doing a good job, individually and collectively. A profound change was then started, leveraging a common purpose and leadership-supported volunteer power. Today, the effects are still unfolding but all very positive. It works! We know, because we see what happens and how much is it different from before. But we can prove it works because we track our progress along the following principles.

1. Prescription kills empowerment

As soon as metrics are issued, they turn into objectives, even if they’re not intended this way. Decided by the top and linked to rewards, they generate unhealthy behaviors that reinforce the very culture we want to change. The solution we found to avoid this pitfall was threefold:

  • Co-build the indicators. Our indicators were designed by the Quality leadership team and subject to a wide consultation of all employees through our internal social network. “Measures are meaningful and important only when generated by those doing the work” (Weathley & Rogers)

  • No reward linked. Our culture change metrics were established for us to know if / when we’re successful. They were not connected to any reward system – only performance metrics are. It was stated clearly when the employee consultation was performed.

  • Handling with care the volunteer-related metrics. In the beginning of the movement, reaching a big number of people throughout the organization was essential. Tracking the number of volunteers informed us on how successful we were. However, we refrained from disclosing the numbers. What we looked for were genuinely engaged employees, not massive numbers of voluntold.

2. Culture change can’t avoid metrics

“If culture improves, performance will improve” is not enough. Culture change efforts, especially in large, global, traditional companies can be costly: they’re often coaching intensive.  The organization needs indicators that are specific to this investment and that reflect how effective the effort is. From the beginning of our culture change efforts, success metrics were clearly defined.

3. Not just engagement... Culture metrics are connected to business imperatives

Engagement surveys are a popular way nowadays to assess how motivated employees are; they reflect key characteristics of the organization’s culture. But they don’t say much about the effectiveness of culture change efforts. Employees can be very engaged (“satisfied, committed”) and collectively ineffective. In our case, culture change metrics are closely tied to quality improvement metrics – because that’s where all started. Several manufacturing quality metrics that we believe are strongly influenced by our working culture (human error rate, repeat deviation rate, deviation closing timeliness...) are part of our culture performance dashboard.

4. No one-size-fits-all measurement

Culture change is never a generic objective; therefore measurement is distinct from one organization to another. Although all organizations today want to become more agile and nimble, better at innovation, etc., each of them is unique, with their own history, culture and challenges. The need for transformation meets a specific objective at a certain time. Therefore, its measure differs from one organization to another. What works for us may be different from what works elsewhere.

5. Good metrics are adaptive

As we made progress on some aspects of our culture, we felt we needed to assess new dimensions. One of the leading indicators in our initial metrics was the number of volunteers, i.e. employees who signed up to support our Opportunity. Once the momentum was reached (more than 3,400 people as of today! – almost half of the target industrial workforce), this indicator became less essential and we shifted our attention to another dimension: how much these volunteers are setting the organization in movement through concrete actions.

6. Competitive metrics kills collaboration

This point is so obvious, it’s almost embarrassing to state it again. But all indicators are usually split per site, function, business unit, department... triggering instant competition between them. This is precisely what we wanted to avoid. A significant part of the quality issues we need to solve comes precisely from the lack of cooperation between manufacturing sites, or between them and global functions. So, we’ve decided to have a global metric that would not be split – unlike all other indicators.

7. Meaningful metrics contribute to change

The most useful metrics do not only measure the progress of culture change, they contribute to making it happen. This year, as our change efforts shift from raising engagement to channeling the energy into action, we monitor the number of improvement initiatives generated across the organization. What matters more than their size is that the improvements have taken place, are reported and shared. The impact of this indicator is quite impressive: focus from problem-obsession to solution finding, more pride, optimism, replication of improvements across sites, time saving, and a virtuous circle of positivism.  This is culture change in action!

What about your organization? How do you monitor the effectiveness of culture change? I’d love to hear from your experience in the comment section.