How do you change a culture?

Jeff Foster
Mar 6 · 4 min read

You’ve read a lot about culture (you might even have read The Importance of Culture) and now you want to change your culture.

How’d you do that? Well, long story short. You don’t.

To understand why let’s travel back in time to the GM Fremont Plant in 1982.

By Rain, Belinda, Photographer (NARA record: 8464467) — U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16912769

Here it is. General Motors Fremont Plant in around 1982. This was the worst car plant in the USA. General Motors was pretty bad at the time, but this place full on sucked.

Staff were routinely drunk on the job (screwdrivers meant the drink, not the tool!). There were even petty acts of sabotage as the staff would put a bottle of Coke/Pepsi in the door frame so it’d rattle. As you might expect, absentism rates were sky high (particularly if there was a sporting event the day before!).

Sometimes so many staff were absent that the production line couldn’t even be started! The solution was for the line manager to run to the nearest bar, grab some people and pay them cash in hand to get the job done. Once the production line did start; it never stopped. Engine in backwards? Who cares! Wing mirrors missing? Who cares?!

Now, you might be thinking why didn’t they sack these trouble-makers? Well, the Unions had an iron grip on the plant. Any attempts at discipline were met with wildcat strike action.

It’s fair to say that this car plant was the absolute worst in America.


Things had to change. General Motors (obviously!) had a quality problem and in a stroke of luck, the US administration had introduced import restrictions meaning that Toyota were looking to build cars on US soil. An unlikely partnership was formed between GM and Toyota. GM got the benefit of Toyota’s quality practices, and Toyota got around the import restrictions. This partnership was known as NUMMI.

The NUMMI plant

The old Fremot plant closed, and within 6 months reopened. To all intents and purposes it was the SAME plant — same people, including the trouble makers (85% of the workforce was still the same). The unions were still in charge. However it was quickly producing cars of much higher quality at the same speed with a much more engaged workforce. An almost immediate cultural transformation. But how?

It’s an Andon cord.

The new Toyota practices immediately had a huge impact. Toyota cared about boredom, so rotated teams around the production line every few hours. In comparison, at the old plant, teamwork was but a motivational poster in the canteen.

The biggest change was introducing the Andon cord. You’re probably familar with this already, but it’s a cord that runs the length of the production line. Pulling the cord lights the Andon and stops the production line. The workers are empowered to stop the production line (!). Compare this to GM where that production line never stopped

A worker described this in action after seeing the production line stopped because of a misplaced bolt:

“Gee, that makes sense. Fix now so you don’t have to go through all this stuff. That’s when it dawned on me. We can do it. One bolt. One bolt changed my attitude.”

It’s practices that change a culture. It’s not forming a focus group. It’s not trying to change the culture. It’s changing what you do and looking up later and finding the cultures changed.

Change what you do to change the culture.

As John Shook said.

”It’s easier to act your way to a new way of thinking than to think your way to a new way of acting.”

So what’s the lesson? Don’t try and do a “culture change” project. You’re doomed to failure. Instead change what you do and culture will emerge.

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