Cultivating a Healthy Organizational Culture in Industrial Plants

by | Articles, Leadership


Forget everything you’ve learned about how to build a healthy organizational culture at your plant.

Every year industry spends 170 billion dollars trying to train people to build organizational culture. 98% of this spending has no positive results. Companies fall prey to unknowing consultants and trainers with a lot of hype and no knowledge, education, or true experience in organizational culture. None of these consultants and trainers has done the work necessary to have any impact on the organizations that trust them. They may have read a book or attended a seminar, but they have yet to do the hard work necessary to make a real difference. They offer quick fixes that make them money while dummying down your expectations to meet what they can falsely make you believe has an impact.

I have been lucky enough to work alongside pioneers in organizational culture. These subject matter experts have no peers in this area. I earned my doctorate in organizational development and change and have spent more than two decades working on my doctorate and continuing my research on this topic. So what follows is not an opinion but a fact based on the scientific method and more than a century of expertise by those who literally wrote the book on the subject.

What is Culture?

Culture is more than words on a mission, vision, or value statement. It is not something you put on a wall, and it is not something that starts in an organization. Culture is rooted in the upbringing of the employees in the company. It is that simple. A company can waste a lot of money to check a box, but the honest answer starts with the hiring process and continues with development from within.

Building Healthy Organizational Culture Wasn’t Always This Difficult

Before 1980, organizational culture was easy. It had not become a buzzword for consultants or trainers preying on the lack of knowledge of corporate leaders. For the most part, the company’s employees were local workers with shared upbringings; thus, the company culture had the necessary foundation. Probably the most critical aspect of sustaining this culture was that the leaders of these organizations were grown and promoted from within. The leadership had the same upbringing and a shared workforce culture. That is the key to thriving culture and the only honest answer. I could stop here. There is no training by any consultant that can change this fact. Everything else that is offered is a lie.

What changed? The workforce became mobile. Many plant floor employees are still locals with a shared upbringing, so the foundation is still there. However, the leaders are primarily outsiders to the community. Companies no longer grow leaders from within, they hire job hoppers from outside the community, and this is where we fail.

Without a common upbringing, the leaders try to force the workforce into their paradigm. The leader from Chicago working in Tennessee will have no shared upbringing or foundation for culture. They will force their values, desires, and will on the workforce, and the company will fail. These leaders focus on making their name so they can hop to the next company for more money. They burn whatever good the current company has in the short term because long term, they have no desire to be there. This is a shift from before the 80s when employees worked for one organization throughout their lives.

What About Diversity?

Consultants, training organizations, and human resources departments might frame this as diversity. Diversity has nothing to do with this. This is another ploy for those preying on companies to sell their services and products. Diversity does not mean relocating employees from all over the world into your workforce to the detriment of your organization. Diversity is recognizing, respecting, and valuing differences. This is possible within the context of hiring locally and developing within. Organizational culture has suffered because of the globalization of the workforce and the lack of senior leaders to recognize it. This is mainly because senior leaders are the job-hopping problem. The magic cure they are looking for is themselves.

Let’s expand on this and tie it to what you are seeing. Of the top six reasons given for why people leave their jobs, four of the six reasons are related to their boss/manager and company leadership. Money and benefits are five and six. Now dig deeper. When an hourly employee leaves their job, they usually take another position in the local community. This is because they live there, have been raised there, and share a common culture. As I stated above, the foundation of thriving company culture is rooted in the common upbringing of the workforce.

Of the top six reasons given for why people leave their jobs, four of the six reasons are related to their boss/manager and company leadership.

What happens when an organization’s manager or senior member leaves the company? The average time an outsider stays with an organization is less than three to five years. This depends on how long they can hide or run under the radar with their short-term efforts. They usually relocate to the area they were raised or to their next job-hopping position to run the next company into the ground. Please take a look at your organization, and you will find this to be true. While consultants, training organizations, and human resources managers want you to believe they can solve your turnover issue with culture buzzwords, the answer lies in hiring local and developing internal resources into your leadership. No magic program or catchy phrase, or tactic can achieve anything. All it does is make them rich, and you are that much poorer as it further damages the culture you are trying to save.

Let’s look at the companies with the most robust culture. The one thing they have in common is they are family owned and operated. The roots for their strength are their roots. Family-owned companies do not bring in outsiders/job hoppers to lead their organizations. You find incredibly long-tenured employees under family leadership. The focus is on quality and long-term success. The desire to achieve this is because the leader’s name is on the sign. Sadly, when they bring in outsiders, they lose their strength and suffer the same fate as others. All you must do is look at a couple of books written by one of my colleagues, Jim Collins. If you read Good to Great or How the Mighty Fall, you will see that the great companies were all family-owned and were the foundation for their rise to greatness. The sad fate for all these once great companies is documented in How the Mighty Fall and their fall due to a change in leadership to outsiders.

How to Get Organizational Culture Right

The formula for a thriving culture is not a consultant or trainer. Do not turn your leadership development over to human resources. Most of these folks have no leadership skills. They have never led a team on a plant floor and have yet to do the hard work required to lead the desired culture. Trying what they think worked at their last company is a fallacy. They did not accomplish what they brag about. They lie, cheat, and mislead companies into what they want to sell them. It will not make a difference. Do not fall for name association. Covey, Maxwell, Blanchard, etc., do not offer any insight. These organizations, like most others, have packaged hype and offer no solutions to your cultural issues. They will tic a box but little else.

The only way to fix the decline in organizational culture is to stop poor hiring practices. Hire local employees and develop your leaders from within. Hiring an outsider to lead your organization is not sustainable.

What can we do to truly affect an organization’s culture? Stop all the shortcuts we are taking damaging the culture we are trying to fix. Hiring locally and developing your leaders from within is the only fix.

Sadly, if your organization has a culture issue, the middle managers and senior leaders are the problem. Stop attacking the hourly workforce. If you do not know how to create a program to build the internal resources necessary to develop the leaders you need, here is where you need to identify an external resource to assist. It would be best if you did your homework to find the right resource. Most of those advertising that they can help lack the proper skills, education, and experience. Leadership development is not sitting in a conference room for a few hours weekly, monthly, or for whatever duration. It is not giving your team homework. Humans do not learn by training. Humans learn from doing and having guidance from someone with the proper skills working right alongside them. It would be best if you had a proven leader, working on the floor with your designated team member to show them what leadership is. Leadership development is done by someone who has led a team.

Don’t look for titles and false promises; look for a leader. Classroom training is a tool for people without leadership. When selecting external resources, look at their resume. Have they led a company? Have they educated themselves? Can they answer your questions? Interview them like you would any other employee. They are critical to your success, and selecting someone from the vast field of unqualified consultants and trainers is a challenging task. The resume must include real-world leadership on a plant floor in an operational environment. A leader with documented success by actual doing, not someone who is a lifelong consultant with desk experience.

A Healthy Culture Requires Intentional Focus

Culture is the heartbeat of your organization. You should give it the due diligence that you would open heart surgery. How would you select the cardiologist that will save your life? Would it be a fancy website, flowery buzzwords, or recommendations from folks who have never had heart surgery? I bet you would ask many questions and verify every statement. You are looking for the experience to guarantee success with the education and credentials to back it up. The entity you select must have done original research on the topic and provided documented contributions to the body of knowledge. That is what you should do if choosing an outside resource to help you with your organization and culture.

Please stop trying to make your plant operations in Alabama the same as in New York; it is not possible. We are back to a very different upbringing. We believe that forcing a corporate culture across our operations and the world is a failed approach. Not only is it impossible to accomplish this, but it does not make common sense.

This is even true of a single culture within a plant. Employees who work in operations have a different culture than those in maintenance. If the workforce comes from the local community, they will share a common base; there is a different approach to building the culture. Stop forcing everyone into the same mold. Stop looking for quick fixes and false promises. If someone tells you they have a canned answer, you know right then and there they are not qualified and are lying to you. Each company and site is unique, and no one can make a difference without possessing the ability to develop leaders in the field working alongside them. Sadly, this takes time, and few companies are willing to invest in it, and that is why they fail and their consultants get rich. Remember, the root cause of why you have a culture problem is probably you if you are a member of leadership.

I want to leave you with one last thing. There are no absolutes in this. Some organizations have limited success, not because of consultants, training organizations, or human resource departments. The reason is that the outside leaders they bring in happen to have some similar upbringing to the local workforce. This is usually the result of a happy accident. It is not a mindful act but the luck of the draw. This is less than .1 of 1% and not enough to turn the tide, destroying the once-industrial power we call the United States of America.

Many reading this may have a different point of view. Please contact me to discuss your position, as I welcome any input. No college class, corporate initiative, or quick fix will ever make a difference. Like reliability in your operations, culture requires hard work and a qualified professional with the education and experience to make a difference. I promise you that 98% of the consulting and training world possess neither and will only drain your bank account.

Again, I would like to help any of you to identify the right person to help your company. I will use my decades of education and experience in organizational culture and my work alongside the pioneers in this arena and their century of proven scientific methods to help you choose the right external resource. I will assist you free of charge and offer this to make a positive difference for your team truly. Remember, there is no quick fix, training, or buzzword approach. If you are looking for one, you are part of the problem, not the solution.


  • Nathan Wright

    Founder and President, Transformational Performance Solutions LLC With 40 years of field experience and a doctorate in Organization, Development and Leadership Style, Nathan has a proven record of transforming organizations into revenue-producing powerhouses. He also helps corporate leaders develop their teams into top-caliber professionals, capable of effectively navigating and utilizing the tools available to them. Nathan’s proprietary coaching approach helps organizations achieve peak performance through leadership development, people development, maintenance and reliability, executive coaching, and strategic planning. The Wright Leadership® Program is a measurable leadership development approach based on real-world experience that increases productivity and reduces turnover and absenteeism.