What do these anecdotes tell you about organizational culture?

1. Roland is a subordinate in a military organization and it’s his first day on this location. In the morning, he has some very nice meetings with staff, including the friendly brigade general. When it’s time for lunch, he goes to the officer’s mess where all seats are taken except at the general’s table. The general is having lunch on his own. Roland takes a seat at his table and everyone stops eating to see what happens next… The general is bemused, then explains that this is not the habit. Lesson learned: as a subordinate, you never have lunch with the general uninvited.
Dominant culture type(s)? Values? Beliefs? Competences? Behaviors? Effects?

2. When we visited GSD&M, an advertising agency in Austin, we were being led on our tour by 1 of their VPs. It was ~5:45 on a Fri. Every time she met a staff person in the hall, the 1st words out of her mouth were: “It’s 5:00 on a Friday – why are you still here? Go home!”

3. I was in a meeting one time to which the CEO had invited about 15 people who were at two different levels of the corporation.  He asked a question and then went around the table in an orderly fashion getting input from the attendees.  When he got to one of the lower level attendees he said, “I’m sorry, I just want to hear from (the higher level) folks”…and moved on down the table.
If you say you value the input of others and invite them to have a seat at the table, but don’t give them a voice, then what are you really saying?

4. The data communications company I worked for gave a top of the range white Porsche to the sales person of the month – but just for a month. Need I say more!

5. It was Monday of my first job as a full-time youth worker; my boss turned up late, threw me the keys of my building, and said he would see me Friday for supervision! It was all downhill from there – ’nuff said!

6. I work at Walmart in Mexico. The principles here are 1) Respect for the individuals, 2) Service for their costumers and 3) striving for excellence. I have to say that these principles are very deep anchored. The power of Walmart’s culture is that it’s simple to understand for all employees, even here in México. (We have more than 170,000 associates). On the other hand Walmart has interestings rituals to say who is ok and who is not. The focus is on execution, fast and overwhelming!
I have worked before in service organizations with a clear customer focus and orientation, but Walmart is on another level. When I started, you were responsible for your own training and had to look for your own answers. When I asked someone a question and they were on the telephone or doing something else, they would interrupt their tasks to answer! The message is: Everything has to happen now! Sentences like “We are a service enterprise” or “We are a low cost operator” are part of everyday conversation!

7. I was working for a company when we changed CEO. On the second day of his tenure I arrived at work early to find maintenance removing the assigned parking spot signs for the Sr execs. I asked them what was going on and they said that the new CEO wanted them removed. He had told them ” If you want a good parking spot, get in early”. I also noted his car was in his assigned spot at the time.

8. During our visit to Dell, we were told that every new hire is shipped 3 boxes of stuff before even walking in the door. The examples I remember: baseball caps, tote bags, a copy of Michael Dell’s book, etc. My takeaway: They were sending a very clear set of messages – we’re glad you’re here; here’s what you’re getting into; here’s what we expect of you; here’s what you can expect of us…

9. I’ve always thought that leadership teams’ respect for corporate culture will dictate how deeply the values penetrate into the entire culture. At Kitchen Kettle Village, a very small company in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, we start our leadership team meetings with a statement of the intention of the meeting to keep it focused and end the meeting with acknowledgements and recognition to affirm the work that was accomplished and the people who accomplished them. In my experience, sincere, first-person recognition will open up a culture to safe conversation faster than anything.

10. A new employee has organized a meeting at 10:00 AM. He arrives at 10 o’clock and he opens the door and… another meeting is still on going. The employee reminds the people inside that it was 10:00 AM and one man says: yes, we know but it’s not still 10:10 AM! Unwritten rule: it was accepted don’t start meetings on time and 10 minuts of delay was universally accepted.
11. In an automobile company, the stated culture is all about empowerment of employees. All employees are equals and anyone, regardless of level, can challenge their managers when equipped with solid evidence. Yet the physical space tells a different story:

  • Whether or not you have an office with a door on it or just a cubicle.
  • The number of pieces of artwork and whether or not you get a plant.
  • Gold versus plastic accessories.
  • On the executive floor, the furniture is more modern and of better quality.
  • Executives enjoy their own dining room.

While the mantra is about how everyone is a leader and their opinion is valued, the type of office you have leads people to immediate judgments. A long term manager was working with the president at the time on bonus and compensation issues. At one point the president came to visit the manager to find out how he could get more money budgeted. When he saw her office, the president said, “Who are you? You are nothing. I want to speak with someone else.”
This story illustrates that your culture is not the mission and vision statements that appear on brass plaques in the lobby. It is not a clever auto signature that appears at the bottom of email messages. Culture is behavior. It is words and actions, especially at critical moments.

12. From a Scottish Hospital in which one of the nursing staff expressed her frustration at having to look after people who were not sick when she knew that there was a queue of sick people waiting for the bed.

 She explained, if a patient was well enough to be transferred home after midday on Friday then if they required an ambulance they had to remain in the hospital until Tuesday. 

The ambulance station closed at midday on Friday and since all ambulance requests had to be made 24hrs in advance, the request on Monday had to be for an ambulance on Tuesday.

 This frustration had existed since she qualified at the hospital and it was not until she was the senior nurse on the ward that she felt that she was able to ask why this situation existed.

 She telephoned the ambulance station, a 10 minute drive from the hospital, and asked why there were no ambulances available after midday on Friday.

 The driver replied that in a cost cutting exercise many years ago the receptionist at the ambulance station had been asked to reduce her working hours. The ambulance drivers sat in the ready room playing cards until five o’clock because nobody ever called for an ambulance on Friday afternoons.

 The Staff nurse asked whether it would be possible for the receptionist to transfer the telephone through to the ready room before she left at midday. This seemed not to have occurred to the ambulance driver who had always accepted the situation as “The way we do things around here.” 
He agreed that there did not appear to be any reason why this could not happen and the ambulance service on Friday afternoons was immediately restored, at no cost.

 Having made such easy headway the Staff Nurse pressed on.
 Why, when the ambulance station was only ten minutes from the hospital, was it necessary to order an ambulance twenty four hours in advance? The driver explained that performance targets had been set for the ambulance crews: All requests for ambulances from the hospital had to be met within 24hrs. 
In order to ensure that this target was met the hospital had to request an ambulance in advance.

 The Staff Nurses asked: 
If I asked for an ambulance now, how long would it take to get here? 

“Ten minutes”, the driver replied ”and even when we are really busy it would be unlikely to be more than an hour.”
It had taken years of built up frustration before she felt confident enough to make the call that ended the frustration for herself and many others. She made that call because she cared about her patients but was prevented from giving them the care they needed by the administration. 

If the culture would have been different, that call would have been made years earlier or perhaps this ridiculous situation would never have occurred.

 The sad thing is that the people who currently control the spending in that hospital have no idea that this saving has been made, or what happened to make it.

 They still do not understand that the solution to this and a host of other expensive problems already exist within their workforce.

Please share your diagnosis on these anecdotes and your own anecdotes in the comments section below. Thank you!

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