How can habits change culture?

Dr. Morgan L. Jones, Chris Butterworth and Brenton Harder

Many organizations have launched continuous improvement, business improvement, process excellence or Lean Six Sigma programs with varying success. The typical model is to employ an experienced external executive to engage directly with the senior leadership team, develop a deployment plan, train a small cohort of green or black belts, identify and deliver some immediate wins, build momentum with more low-hanging fruit and hope the top-down approach will permeate the organizational culture due to an obvious display of logic and benefits. Building individual capability of green belts, black belts and sometimes sponsors is a successful approach for creating a proof point that these methods work within that organization and its culture.

The Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), a 2015 Shingo Silver Medallion recipient, and the Bank of New York Mellon (BNYM) decided they needed to try a different approach, and they have had tremendous success embedding a culture of continuous improvement through the application of five simple habits.Taking lessons from the Shingo teachings, both organizations started with defining the culture they wanted and the ideal behaviors that would be needed to bring this culture to life. However, it was felt that something more was needed to really bring the behaviors to life, so they defined five simple habits that everyone could learn and constantly practice in the workplace. The habits also enabled the practicing of the ideal behaviors as they were not just some theoretical “nice to have,” but they were actively demonstrated by applying the habits. The habits quickly became a way of changing the way people thought about their job at all levels of the organization.It is important to keep the habits as simple as possible. It is very easy to make things complicated and continuous improvement professionals need to avoid complex models that may well be intellectually stimulating but do not help widespread understanding. Keep it simple – if it takes a lot of explanation and people do not immediately connect with what’s proposed, then it needs changing. The four core habits used in this case are:

  1. VMB – Although the visual management board is a tool, the commitment to continually updating it is the real habit. There is also an explicit link to the customer with the integration of the Customer Value Proposition (CVP), which is explored further in Chapter 2 of 4+1: Embedding a Culture of Continuous Improvement in Financial Services
  2.  Huddles – A short 5- to 15-minute standing discussion around the VMB
  3.  CI – Continuous improvement ideas generated by the team, their interrelationships with each other, and their collective power using PDCA
  4. SOPs – Standard operating procedures result in standard work rules, enabling tasks that are repeatable and reducing the process variation significantly
  5. Gemba walks (or the + 1 habit) – The opportunity to embed the habits through coaching conversations by leaders at all levels

As with many things in continuous improvement, it is not what we do that’s important but rather the way we do it. Many organizations, for example, have visual management boards, but fewer are really able to use them to their full potential. What made them successful in the case of both CBA and BNYM organizations was not to focus on the tool but the behaviors and benefits of using them as individuals and teams. The “what’s in it for me” question was explicitly addressed, and by integrating the VMB to the other four habits, each one became mutually reinforcing. This is illustrated in the diagram below:

Figure 1.1 The four habits working together. Source 4+1 by Jones, Butterworth, Harder 2017

As seen from figure 1.1, there is also a direct link between the habits and customer value. The Customer Value Proposition (CVP) is used to document a deep understanding of real customer value, and this in turn is translated onto the VMB. The habits drive a culture of constantly striving to make the customer experience better, whilst at the same time making things as simple as possible for everyone.

It quickly became apparent in both organizations that the habits where actively embedding the ideal behaviors and that practicing the habits created the opportunity to practice the behaviors. A lot of research in the field of neuroscience explains how the brain quickly adopts new habits that are regularly practiced and equally defaults to existing behaviors and assumptions unless given new stimuli and challenges. Understanding the underlying neuroscience is a key aspect to the successful implementation of the habits.

In other words, HABITS drive the right BEHAVIORS that deliver the right CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE, highly engaged PEOPLE and sustainable business RESULTS.

The ideas in this short article are discussed in much more detail in a new book, 4+1 Embedding a Culture of Continuous Improvement in Financial Services. The authors will donate all proceeds to a Children’s Cancer Charity.

4+1: Embedding a Culture of Continuous Improvement in Financial Services
by Dr. Morgan L. Jones, Chris Butterworth and Brenton Harder
2017 ISBN: 978-0-9873477-1-8
Copies can be purchased at:

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1 thought on “How can habits change culture?”

  1. Mmmhhh, there is a magic formula to implement the change culture in order to work under the Lean philosophy?

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