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Organizational culture and its relationship to tqm.

Organization culture is an often used term, but it is seldom defined. Most people think they know what it is, and a definition is unnecessary. The recent emphasis on TQM and its general acceptance has greatly increased the need for a more precise definition. TQM has been defined as an interrelationship between the organization's culture; its relations with its customers, both external and internal; the use of organizational teams and cross functional teams; an emphasis on problem solving usings teams as just mentioned, and Shewhart's wheel - plan, do, check, act; recognition of the need for continuous improvement; and the use of measurement to evaluate systems and practices and to indicate the effectiveness of improvement efforts. Culture in an organization involved in TQM is referred to as a paradigm shift, the empowerment of employees, a recognition of the value of the organization's human resource and other similar phrases. The emphasis is on what is needed, not what is culture and how to get this desirable result. According to Ott, organization culture contains five attributes:

* Language; * Artifacts and symbols; * Patterns of behavior; * Basic underlying assumptions; and * Subcultures.

The initial implication is that an organization wishing to implement TQM must first identify its culture relative to the attributes shown above. Any identified shortcoming must be effectively dealt with in order to have a successful TQM implementation.


The language of an organization communicates its culture. It is a unifying and sustaining force. It tends to perpetuate the existing culture. In order to change the culture, the language must be changed. Whenever someone or a group attempts to change the culture, language "comes to the rescue." "We've seen programs like this before. Wait six months and it will be gone like the rest of

them." This frequently heard refrain is an organization using its language to fend off challenges to its culture. If that comment is heard frequently, then it will be true.

Jargon -- Jargon is the shorthand of language. It is used to assign special meanings to words, phrases and acronyms that can be interpreted otherwise outside the organization. Using fewer words, it is a way of communicating with codes, which have more intense meanings than the words themselves. Segments of organizations have their own jargon for the purpose of allowing communication to be understood by its members only when others are present. Jargon subtly protects the existing culture by adding complexity to communication and allowing portions of the organization to have divided loyalties. Acronyms frequently represent organizational units. By their entrenched use, the need for their function is less likely to be challenged. Therefore, they become an accepted, unchallenged entity, which complicates TQM implementation.

Metaphors -- Metaphors are the application of a word or a phrase to an object or concept that it does not literally denote. Metaphors usually give a stronger meaning to innocuous words. At a government installation, "blue suit"is a not too complimentary reference to an Air Force officer. In another organization, its executives are collectively referred to as the "third floor." The "third floor" metaphor is one denoting frustration and/or lack of confidence. Recently over-heard was this comment: "Has the third floor acted on this matter yet? They have had it for month." As a combination of a joke and a term of derision, one accounting firm referred to its customers as "assholes." They also wondered why they had such high client turnover. One client actually overheard the term used and told other customers. This merely brought the matter to a head. The fact that the term permeated the culture sent the message to customers seeking another firm.

Myths -- Myths are stories based on fact. They can have both positive or negative impact on organizational progress. So many people tell the story of Hewlett-Packard's David Packard when he cut the lock off the crib one Saturday morning that there is no way everyone could have possibly been there. Packard also added a note to the door of the tool crib. It read "Do not ever lock the tool crib again. Thanks, Dave." This story tells a lot about how H-P feels about its employees. That is why the story is spread so readily. The employees want it to be true and it is. The myth could also be negative. For example, an administrator was summoned to the office of his new boss to discuss a new proposal of the administrator. During this discussion, the new boss' displeasure was made evident when he asked for the administrator's resignation three times. This request was based on ignorance and prejudice, but the story has been retold so many times that it is a myth in an ineffective organization.

Heroes -- Heroes are people who exemplify the culture. They are the ones who generate myths. Fred Smith could not meet one of Federal Express' early payrolls. Attempts to borrow money failed. In desperation, he-caught a plane to Las Vegas and won nearly $30,000, enough to meet the payroll. Heroes and myths abound in American organizations. Thomas Watson of IBM, Steven Jobs of Apple Computer, Werner vonBraun of NASA, and Lee Iacocca of Chrysler are but a few who come to mind. A positive culture needs its heroes.

Ceremonies and celebrations -- Ceremonies and celebrations communicate values to the organization. I know several organizations that celebrate when an employee leaves the organization. The assumption is that the employee is going to a better employer since most are better than the current one. At all too many companies the main source of celebration is retirements, to hand out service pins, and Christmas parties. Excellent organizations celebrate accomplishments and encourage teams to celebrate their accomplishments as a way of motivating to be productive. Bureaucratic organizations tend to prohibit such activities and miss the fun in accomplishment.

Artifacts and symbols

Artifacts and symbols are tangible evidence of the culture. They indicate the character of the culture more eloquently than words. Some of the more obvious symbols are: timeclocks, the wearing of neckties (mostly by management), reserved parking spaces, the guard station passed going onto company property, windows in certain offices, executives on a separate floor, etc. All of these state what is important and, conversely, what is not important. Some organizations are aware of the impact of symbols and artifacts. Managers of the Saturn Corp. do not wear neckties. They want everyone to have the same status. Also, there is no executive dining room at Saturn. Everyone eats in the same cafeteria. The pictures on the wall near the lobby of the plant in Clarksville, Tenn., are not of senior management but of the workforce. This sends the message, "Our workers are important."

Many organizations have done away with timeclocks. The existence of timeclocks indicates that workers are not trusted and are a lower class from management or professional employees who do not "punch" a timeclock. Some companies I have worked with claimed that the government (the organization is a government contractor) would not permit the abandonment of timeclocks. It is difficult to determine who is responsible, but the timeclocks are still there and management and labor are still divided. At CTI in Knoxville, Tenn., every employee has a key to the front door of the plant. In this same organization, there is flextime with no core time. Again, the message is, "We trust our employees.'' The team of renegades that developed the Macintosh computer flew the Skull and Crossbones-Jolly Roger flag over the building where the team did its incredible work. Perhaps the message was "Leave us alone and we will make great accomplishments." Teams in many organizations feel this way.

The organization is communicating its culture continuously. Most are not aware of the message being transmitted. Choosing the symbols that best represent the chosen culture is a viable option that is being selected by excellent organizations.

Patterns of behavior

Rites and rituals -- Rites and rituals are activities that are required by the organization, and their importance is compared with the value of the service rendered. For example, much effort is spent in making sure that every employee gets to work on time. Less effort is made in determining how the employee's time is used after reporting to work. In most jobs little is accomplished by closely examining employee arrival time. In another organization attendance reports had to be in to the general manager's office by 10 a.m. If the reports were not on time, caustic comments could be expected in the manager's next staff meeting. This was true in spite of the fact that the information was not looked at by the general manager. The reports were turned over to a recording clerk who filed them. Another prevalent rite is the manner in which employees leave the job site. Fire drills would not be so proficient. Professional and hourly role workers, alike, abandon work with great speed only to sit in long lines of traffic exiting the facility. The work is not viewed as important enough to shut down in a more orderly fashion. Other rites and rituals involve travel approval when only one manager knows if a trip is appropriate and if funds are available. Signing time cards is also time consuming and fruitless.

Behavioral norms -- Behavioral norms are standards or expectations of behavior, speech and performance. The unofficial IBM dresscode (dark suit, white shirt) was a norm. It probably was not written down but it was certainly an expectation and religiously practiced. In several organizations making a due date is much more important than doing quality work. Not making mistakes is more important than learning from experience. Stopping work 15 minutes prior to "quitting time" is a behavioral norm. Asking permission in a situation where the employee is the only one who knows what to do is also a widely accepted norm. A norm in some organizations is to follow instructions that are known to be incorrect by the employee. This a way of following orders and making management look bad. The tolerable level of absenteeism, and the amount by which it is acceptable to miss a due date, are norms. Norms permeate the organization, and their levels tell us what can be done without fear of punishment. Norms are what TQM challenges and does not accept.

Beliefs and values -- Central to the culture, shared beliefs and values are the justifications for behavior and norms. It is accepted appropriateness of how business is conducted. Thus, it is a most powerful control issue. Values are affected by the availability of resources, meaning that a shortage of resources frequently causes values to be changed to more expedient strategies. TQM implementation demands a longer term decision strategy that will not be abandoned at the first crisis. Values are also affected by leadership, technology, success and competitive forces. Values must be carefully chosen so that they will not have to be abandoned when challenged, such as a reduction of funding to a facility; a new management team taking over; a competitor providing a better product of service at a substantially lower price. None of these need be the cause for abandoning well chosen values. A commonly held belief in the past was that if an employee was on time, did not screw up, did not work or loaf more than others, then everything would work; put in your 30 years and retire with a good pension. Many companies that had employees who thought like that are no longer in business. New beliefs and values based on full utilization of the human potential in a TQM type system must be instilled in the workforce.

Basic underlying assumptions

Examine management decisions, policies and procedures, and the basic underlying assumptions of the organization will be revealed. The existence of timeclocks, timecards and security procedures are a not-so-subtle way of telling employees they are not trusted. Other successful organizations do not have them. Are customers and suppliers assumed to be the "enemy?" Other progressive organizations are forming partnerships with them, and together they are solving problems. Are policies and procedures put into such detail that it must be assumed that employees are not very smart? These same employees are supposed to identify the smallest deviations from specifications. Anyway, detail policies and procedures are normally out of date before they are issued. Employees must be smart enough to work without them. However, many companies assume they are invincible. As AT&T found out, size and technical superiority were not enough to fend off competitors. Customers must be convinced that companies are on their side. Union Carbide was once complacent; the Bophal incident convinced them otherwise. Illusions of invincibility will doom an organization. The utilization of all available resources through TQM may save it.

Subcultures -- Most organizations have a primary culture and several subcultures. The subculture, itself, has goals and attitudes toward the subculture as well as to the primary culture. The subculture may be supportive of the primary or may attempt to counter it. Engineers in many organizations are a dominant force and are an easily identified subculture. The engineers' subculture is frequently, but not always, supportive of the primary culture. The second branch of subcultures is the counter culture. It is quietly working against the primary culture. It stays within existing rules and policies but is both actively and passively attempting to negate the efforts made to maintain or enhance the primary culture. The union in some organizations acts in this way. In other organizations, such as the Saturn Corp., management and the United Auto Workers have more of a partnership than a contract. The negative subculture is working to bring about change more favorable to its membership than current conditions. This change may be to increase the status of the subculture group or it may be attempting to change the basic value system of the organization, to be more participative, to be more aggressive in the world marketplace, to increase the quality of employee work life, etc. TQM rarely begins as the primary culture. It is more likely a subculture. Its task is to woo other subcultures and the primary culture to its values and principles. It must develop a critical mass of employees who want TQM to succeed. Once critical mass is reached, big accomplishments should follow.

Culture Change -- In order to change a culture, the elements that make up the culture must be changed. This is not done by the mere recognition that the organization culture is something other than a desired one. There must be a conscious effort to replace negative cultural components with positive ones. Positive systems must get positive reinforcement. Producers of the organization must be recognized. Negative symbols must be ceremoniously decommissioned. Why not have a public ceremony when timeclocks are removed? Representative workers and managers could take turns publicly bludgeoning one of the mechanical monsters to death. Positive symbols must be evident. Pictures of workers could be placed in entry ways, positive accomplishments could be rewarded and recognition of team performance could be done. The basic underlying assumption must be that employees who are properly trained and equipped will solve problems and make the organization a productive and a good place to work. The most needed change would be the collection of teams who will identify and solve organizational problems. Language from top to bottom and bottom to top must reflect positively on an organization and its members.


Culture is the "hidden agenda of TQM." It is underestimated and frequently overlooked. Culture is subtle yet powerful. It is difficult to measure, but if is not positive toward TQM then it is surely negative and will exact a costly toll. It is one of the few aspects of TQM that is the responsibility of management. Everything else is a partnership. The conclusion is that if an organization wants to adopt TQM as a guiding principle, it begins with an effort by management to make the culture supportive. It must reward positive contributions and crowd negativism off the agenda and out of the organization's vocabulary.

Jerry D. Westbrook, Ph.D., is chairman of the University of Tennessee's engineering management program, associate dean of engineering for off-campus programs, and former dean of engineering of UT Nashville. He is currently a professor and a registered P.E. He holds a Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from Virginia Polytechnical Institute; an M.S. in industrial engineering from the University of Tennessee; and a B.S. in electrical engineering from Vanderbilt University. He is an experienced consultant with clients in both the private and governmental sectors.

For further reading

Ott, J. Steven, Organization Culture and Perspective, Homewood IL.: Richard D. Irwin Co., 1989
COPYRIGHT 1993 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Total Quality Management
Author:Westbrook, Jerry D.
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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