Developing mechanisms and turning them into culture

Have you ever been in a situation where you discovered a problem, found the root cause after some investigation, determined corrective actions, and fixed the issue – only to see the same or a similar problem creep up again a few weeks later?

What happened? You fixed the problem, but you didn’t make the learning and fix a part of your operations moving forward. It’s all too easy to get distracted by the next issue at hand and thus not turning the fix or change into sustained improvement.

Create a mechanism

The way to make a change sustained is to create a mechanism.

Mechanisms can be many things: an updated process description, a recurring reminder on your calendar, a check-in meeting cadence with set agenda topics, or a scheduled report that you review on a regular basis.

The important common quality of all of those is that they remind you to think about the previous problem, its fix, and future prevention on a regular basis. Each of those mechanisms ingrains the learning into your operational processes and memory. They make it stick.

For example, if you want to make sure that system changes that impact multiple teams are reliably communicated to everyone, you cannot just send out an email to all groups and tell them to please do so in the future. That email will stick in their memory for about a week – if you are lucky. Instead, if you have a recurring meeting with that stakeholder group, you should make it a standing agenda item for those meetings to check for any planned changes that need to be communicated. That way, you transformed the one-off issue, fix, and learning into a repeatable process. You change the operations – and eventually the thinking – of the team.

If you want something to stick, you must develop a mechanism for it.

From mechanisms to culture

While a mechanism will help you achieve the desired outcome, it is not where you want to end up.

Mechanisms ensure that things get done the right way. However, they are also crutches for doing the right thing. Mechanisms require you to handhold and micromanage a specific behavior because it is not yet the natural behavior of the group.

You really want to achieve that the behavior becomes natural for the group and doesn’t need constant reminder through the mechanism. You want to achieve culture change.

Culture doesn’t change because you tell it to – culture changes through repetition, role modeling, and shared expectations. However, mechanisms can help you change the culture as they provide repetition (muscle memory) and remind everyone that a certain behavior is important (expectation setting). Over time mechanisms can evolve into culture.

A word of caution: think carefully about what your organizational priorities are and what you want to focus on. If everything becomes a mechanism, nothing matters at all. I’ve been in organizations where we had so many mechanisms that everyone lost track. In the end, none of them mattered, and their utility evaporated.

If you never make it to culture change, if you don’t change thinking, if you don’t role model the right behavior, you will spend a lot of time and energy to make sure the right things happen (aka micro-management).

Culture is the end goal. Mechanisms only compensate for culture.

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Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
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