News & Insights

So you want a Performance Culture?

Feb 03, 2016

Author: John Shewfelt​

There were five monkeys in a cage….you may have heard this one before

Behavioral scientists are said to have placed five monkeys in a cage. In the cage is a ladder, and at the top of the ladder is a bunch of bananas. The cage is normal, except for the fact that it has sprinklers in the ceiling through which water can flow.

Not long after being placed in the cage, the monkeys spot the bananas. They begin to climb the ladder, and the behavioral scientists press a switch that turns on the sprinklers. The monkeys get drenched.

The monkeys try again, and the same happens. The sprinklers are turned on and they get drenched.

This happens again and again. Eventually the monkeys give up trying to get the bananas.

The scientists then remove one of the monkeys and put a new one in the cage. The new one spots the bananas and naturally begins to climb the ladder. A fascinating thing happens. The other monkeys aggressively jump on the new monkey and pull it down. The new monkey tries again, and again it gets set upon. Again it tries – the same consequence. Eventually the monkey ceases trying.

The scientists then take another of the original monkeys out and replace it with a new one. The new monkey tries to climb the ladder and it is set upon. This happens time and time again, until the newest monkey stops trying to climb the ladder.

Eventually each of the original monkeys is replaced.

The scientists then place another new monkey in the cage and it is jumped on aggressively and pulled down by the other monkeys.

Why? Not one of them knows…but it is obvious that they have been conditioned by the culture of their organization and the leaders among them.

Corporate Culture Influences Leadership Competencies

Speaking about the effect of organizational culture on leadership style, Thomas Kell and Gregory Carrott write in their HBR article “Culture Matters Most”, May 2005, how corporate culture influences employees’ leadership styles more than any other aspect of their jobs. They discovered that employees who work for the same corporation, or “reside within the same cage”, are 30% more likely to exhibit similar leadership competencies than people who do the same job but who work elsewhere. They give an example of an American Engineer at a Japanese auto plant in America. The fact of her employer being Japanese tells more about her leadership style than the fact that she is an engineer, or that she labors in the auto industry, or that she is in America. Her competencies more closely resemble her Japanese peer in Japan than an American counterpart at another employer. The bottom line is this:  these “family traits” of organizational leadership competencies present an obstacle for organizations seeking to adopt a new Performance Culture.


Corporate Culture Can Become a Performance Culture

The reference to auto manufacturing is insightful. For many years, these Japanese manufacturers have been elevated to aspirational status by many, as evidenced by companies seeking to adopt new “manufacturing systems” based on Lean, Six Sigma and Toyota Production System, often with self-branding to suggest a nuance of customization. However, as suggested by Dr. Jeffery Liker in his many books on Toyota and Lean Leadership, many organizations fail to recognize and suitably plan for the necessary shift in leadership during a cultural change process.

The most successful companies, recognizing that culture shift doesn’t happen overnight, adopt a change management process involving phased, systematic change of technology, processes and behaviors. While the first element, technology, can be achieved through a relatively straightforward process of purchase, install, train and use, the second and third elements can be more complex.

Processes often come down from high in the form of a guideline document, making it the local management’s responsibility to adopt the protocols and implement change, often on an accelerated timeline. Creating an implementation roadmap, developing champions and steadily but methodically adjusting the systems and processes to the new way is key to success. At RLG, we look at implementing performance KPIs, both leading and lagging around important activities and outcomes. Then, to govern the interactions where progress, obstacles and next steps are discussed and agreed upon, we implement a structured set of interactions we call Operating Rhythm™. This foundation of effective processes provides the guidance and governance for performance accountability and involvement.

The third element, behavior, is arguably the most difficult of the three changes. Embedded cultures, not unlike the five monkeys in the cage, are governed by tradition, fear and leadership competency gaps. Effective leadership development with external coaching is the answer. Again from Kell and Carrott, organizations should first analyze and assess their current leadership, identifying gaps, being aware that many leaders will display the same “family traits” of their existing corporate culture. This analysis should be performed against a critical set of competencies aligning with the desired culture, with development plans, training and coaching being prescribed to introduce new skills and develop leadership competency and confidence.

This approach is anchored in many successful examples, from professional sporting to the recent rebirth of the north American auto manufacturing industries. It works, but it is difficult to undertake alone.

At RLG, we have helped manufacturing companies successfully navigate these difficult cultural change programs towards a Performance Culture. We invite you to explore our website to learn more about us, then get in touch with us to talk about how we can help you.

“If you want to change an organization to get results through people, call RLG. I've been involved with RLG for more than 15 years with six groups in different companies. They've helped us change the culture of an organization to make it an exciting place to work, with high achievements being the norm.”

  • Past President, Pipeline Company

Further Reading:

  • The Toyota Way (2003), Jeff Liker
  • Lean Thinking (2003), Jim Womack
  • Leading the Lean Enterprise Transformation (2012), George Koenigsaecker
  • Creating a Kaizen Culture (2013), Jon Miller, Mike Wroblewski and Jaime Villafuerte
  • Toyota Kata (2009), Mike Rother
  • The Lean Turnaround (2012), Art Byrne