The Engineering Leadership Institute is excited to welcome Joshua Plenert, MBA, MS, PE as our most recent guest blogger. Joshua currently works as Regional Manager at Cartwright Architects and Engineers, has been an adjunct professor at California State University – Sacramento, and is an engineering management and leadership expert, author, and lecturer. 

Engineering firms will often adopt new software, implement new project management practices, or adopt new business management philosophies as they work to achieve higher levels of success.  Each new approach seems to result in measurable improvements for a time, but eventually, the organizations always seem to revert back to their old ways.  Every improvement seems to be temporary.  So, what’s missing?  Although each situation is unique, in most cases, culture is the major missing ingredient to making improvement efforts sustainable.

For example, many organizations apply lean tools (tools used to systematically reduce waste) attempting to achieve Toyota level efficiency but fail to get there. That’s because Toyota’s TPS (Toyota Production System) is a cultural approach to lean, not a simple application of lean tools.  A cultural approach to lean means every individual seeks ways to reduce waste within their own area of responsibility because they have a foundational belief in the importance of reducing waste, not just because they’ve been asked to apply a tool.  Lean tools are used as needed but a cultural approach means that the efforts of the organization do not revolve around tools, they revolve around common beliefs, principles, and values.  Applying a lean tool will only result in a temporary improvement unless it is supported by a lean culture.

Instead of just applying problem solving tools, develop a culture of problem solving. Instead of just applying improvement tools, foster a culture of continuous improvement. Instead of just distributing a corporate strategy in an email, work to establish a culture of strategic thinking.  Culture seems to be one of the big “buzz words” that everyone is talking about.  Even though every leader and manager will agree that a healthy culture is important, exactly how to go about developing a healthy culture is a mystery to many.

When it comes to enhancing corporate culture, an effective place to start is with purpose.  Organizations need to take time to develop their purpose.  Why do they exist?  Where are they heading?  What’s their ideal path to get there?  What beliefs, principles, and values are their efforts guided by?  Effective strategic planning can help organizations work through these questions, but they need to make sure they use a cultural approach to the planning process.  This is more than just one individual sitting in his/her office filling out a template they found online.

Effective strategic planning requires key individuals throughout the organization be involved every step of the way and that a unique and inspiring identity be developed.  It requires every individual be given opportunities to voice his/her opinion in order to develop a sense of ownership of the resulting strategy.  And it requires that strategic objectives be cascaded down to every level and every unit of the organization.  Each individual should have a clear line-of-sight from his/her day-to-day activities all the way up to the ultimate vision.  In other words, every member of the organization should understand how his/her behaviors and actions are affecting the organization and moving the performance needle in the right direction.  In addition, metrics should be carefully developed and aligned with strategic objectives and they should include not only KPIs(Key Performance Indicators) but also KBIs(Key Behavioral Indicators).  Managers should understand that the purpose of metrics is to drive performance and influence behaviors.  They are never to be used to punish or assign blame.

Then each individual, all the way down to the janitor, should be empowered with the training, resources, and authority to solve problems and improve his/her own operations.  Solutions should be developed at the level where the problems exist.  Solutions should not be developed in the corner office and then dictated to the individuals who know the “solutions” won’t work.  When those dealing with problems on a daily basis are allowed to solve the problems themselves, they come up with much better solutions and a sustainable culture of problem-solving and continuous improvement is developed.

Through a cultural approach to strategic planning and management, organizations can develop a unique and clearly defined identity resulting in unity of purpose and synergistic effort.  The corporate culture and the corporate strategy become one and the same and improvement efforts are sustained by a culture of continuous improvement.  Healthy and vibrant corporate cultures exist by design, not by accident, and the design process begins with establishing purpose.

To learn more about this process see Strategic Excellence in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction Industries: How AEC Firms Can Develop and Execute Strategy Using Lean Six Sigma by Gerhard Plenert and Joshua Plenert (ISBN-13: 978-1138478855).