The Power of Corporate Myths

By on April 20, 2017
The Power of Corporate Myths

Powerful stories get told and retold in all organizations. They get so embedded in the organization’s psyche that they take on an almost mythological quality. They literally define the character of the organization.

Some of these stories exert a very positive influence over employees. They’re the engines that drive a commitment to quality. They’re the sparks that energize a continuing search for waste in work processes. They’re the forces that motivate us, that drive higher and higher levels of employee engagement. They are the drivers of continuous improvement.

And some of these stories exert a very negative influence over employees. They demotivate employees. They destroy a commitment to quality. They cripple attempts to improve work processes. They continually ratchet up levels of employee cynicism. They are the enemies of continuous improvement.

We’ve all heard these stories, both the positive and negative. If you’re like me, you’ve even argued with an employee retelling one of the negative stories, saying, “Jack, what you’ve just said about our commitment to quality just isn’t true.” And perhaps you’ve walked off thinking to yourself, “Jack’s an idiot.” And because what Jack said is especially annoying, you’ve tried to forget it.

Rather than being forgotten, stories like the one Jack told should be seared into our consciousness.

We need to remember them, to think about what brought them into existence and to figure out why they continue to be retold. Why do this? Because they’re poisonous and unless we come up with antidotes they’ll gradually eat away at everything that makes a company competitive.

Here are a few of the very destructive stories I’ve heard being repeated by line employees.

“We’ll never change.”

“The plant manager doesn’t care about any of us.”

“Our supervisors couldn’t care less about quality. All they want to do is get products out the door.”

“We need to watch out for ourselves. The company sure as hell isn’t going to.”

Stories like these are poisonous. Unless specific actions targeted at opposing them are taken they will continue to exert their very negative impact on the organization. So what are some antidotes?

Here are a few:

  • No one will come to believe that these stories aren’t true just because they’re told they aren’t. It’s actions that will gradually change these narratives, not talk. If the prevailing story is “We’ll never change,” line employees themselves must become the drivers of change, change which is actively and conspicuously supported by all levels of management. Within the context of Lean, line employees must be filled with a spirit of “Kaizen,” change for the better.
  • Upper management must regularly go to where the organization’s products are made, or services delivered, and interact with those employees who, in Lean language, are doing “value added work.” Lean calls this “going to the gemba” and it’s the most important work that members of upper management can do. And why is this so? Because if upper management engages employees in discussions about the work they’re doing, listening to what they have to say, and responding to it, they’re chipping away at both the “we’ll never change” and “management doesn’t care about us” stories.
  • First line supervisors must continually reinforce good work whenever they see it. To do this, of course, need to know what good work looks like. The reinforcement they give must be precisely targeted and sincere. This type of reinforcement is much more effective if there are standardized work processes that employees are following.
  • All levels of management must be aware of the staying power of negative stories. Chipping away at them requires continuing, daily behaviors on the part of all levels of management that speak loud and clear to all employees that:
    • We’re changing because we have to in order to be competitive.”
    • You’re all vital contributors to the change process.”
    • The company greatly values your knowledge and creativity.”
    • And, to quote Henry Ford, “We’re all in the same boat.”

When these antidotes are tenaciously applied, over time, slowly, one employee at a time, new stories are going to emerge. And these stories will be uplifting, motivating, the kind of stories that make employees want to come to work. Employees will proud of the team they belong to. They’ll know that all levels of management are focused on supporting the work they do. And the organization’s line workers will become the major drivers of continuous improvement.

And when the negative stories have been eliminated from the workplace, Jack will say to you, “We’re a company that really cares about quality. We’re all members of one team and our team is a winner.”

St. Louis Community College’s Corporate Solutions Group has a wide variety of training and consulting services that can help you trigger the development of the stories of winners in your organization. We’d appreciate having the opportunity to meet with you to discuss these resources. You can reach me any time at 314-303-0612. Let’s meet and talk about the power of stories in the workplace. I’m confident you’ll find it time very well spent.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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