running up stairs
PHOTO: Bruno Nascimento

Some people use the terms "process culture" and "organizational culture" interchangeably. More accurately, process culture refers to an aspect of organizational culture that supports the ongoing creation, management and improvement of efficient and effective business processes. A strong process culture is built on the attitudes and behaviors of employees and managers. Moreover, in order to have a strong process culture, a company must have the right organizational culture in place to support it.

How to Diagnose a Weak Process Culture

Some organizations have processes that appear to work very well until their business environment changes. Since a business may only experience problems when it needs to react quickly to a threat, it may be difficult to proactively spot a poor process culture. Sunny days, light traffic and good roads don’t test a driver’s skill.

Having a poor process culture doesn’t necessarily mean that a business can’t predict changes and take action. Some organizations recognize new competitors or changing business environments well in advance. However, they may have become so stuck doing things the way they’ve always done them that they develop ineffective or insufficient strategies to adapt to change.

An Example of Process Culture Problems at Firestone

A 1999 Harvard Business Review article titled “Why Good Companies Go Bad” shared an example from Firestone Tire and Rubber’s past to illustrate a poor process culture that arose even before the digital age began to force so many organizations to transform or risk failure.

The tire manufacturer had close ties to auto manufacturers and a strong customer base. In the 1970s, the company’s leadership knew that Michelin had won a large share of the European market with its high-quality radial tires well before significant competition made it to the US Firestone executives predicted that US drivers would prefer these new and better alternatives to their own company’s bias tires. Firestone had time to prepare its own plants to produce radial tires, and it did.

However, Firestone didn’t prepare well enough. Instead of transforming the way that it produced tires, it simply rigged its old processes, so quality suffered. In addition, Firestone insisted on keeping open plants that still made bias tires, despite the drop in demand for those products. While Michelin gained a strong market share and developed a good reputation, Firestone had warehouses stocked with tires it could not sell.

Related Article: Business Process Management Success Starts With People

Spotting a Weak Process Culture Before a Threat Occurs

Having employees who spend most of their time trying to stomp out fires is one clear sign of a weak process culture. There are also other signs to watch out for. You can spot a weak process culture within an organization when you see the following:

  • Leaders who resist questioning processes because they represent the way things have always been done.
  • Leaders who don’t visibly support feedback and suggestions for improvement.
  • Apathetic, frustrated and stressed employees.
  • A lack of openness in general, or a lack of communication between departments.
  • Processes without clear or empowered owners.
  • Recurring issues with quality or efficiency.

Related Article: An Introduction to Agile Business Process Management

Transforming an Organization’s Process Culture

How could an established company like Firestone fail to head off the threat from a new overseas competitor? The Harvard Business Review article attributed Firestone’s problems to its policy of hiring and promoting “people like us” (meaning it tended to promote longtime company veterans and hire local people who likely had parents who had worked for Firestone) and its efforts to drill a consistent mindset across all levels of the business. Also, the plant managers who the executives relied upon for advice had no incentive to volunteer their own ideas and suggestions. Even though Firestone understood it needed to change, had money to invest and took action, it did not effectively meet the challenge.

Here are five steps that an organization can take to improve its process culture before a threat occurs:

  • Understand the objective: Everyone across the business needs to know which business goals they will be supporting by tuning business processes. Possible objectives could include reducing costs, increasing revenue or enhancing the brand image. Any changes should support those objectives. Employees should be encouraged to question whether current or planned processes support the shared business goals.
  • Improve cross-team communication and accountability: Processes need to have clearly defined owners, and different departments need to share relevant information openly for the good of the entire company. Employees should be rewarded for suggesting and making improvements, not for protecting their own domains.
  • Establish process leadership: Strong process management starts with the leadership team. Not only do the right managers need to visibly promote process management, they also need to empower their teams to make necessary process changes.
  • Introduce governance and accountability: Governance policies should establish rules and ensure compliance. In addition, organizations need to establish guidelines to create metrics to constantly gauge process health, including process use and effectiveness.
  • Pinpoint early adapters: Naturally, some teams may adapt to change faster than others. If possible, roll out process changes in stages to those likely adapters. Once they have tested the new processes, it will be easier and less risky to promote them elsewhere.

There are tools and methodologies that can help teams to analyze business processes and manage change, but there’s no replacement for the executive team visibly encouraging innovation, improvement and empowerment. No employee at any level truly wants the organization to suffer from a poor image or incur financial losses because they have to follow inefficient, outdated processes.

Successful organizations make it a priority to build a strong process culture that encourages employees at all levels to take pride in constantly improving processes and questioning the way the company does business.