Field Notes from a Corporate Anthropologist

What do these have in common: Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast, Total Quality Management and Speaking Truth to Power? Absolutely nothing except for my lived experience.

I discovered this when I first tried to write a blog tying them together.  Their only commonality is my lived experience.  As a liberal arts major who graduated during a major recession, I ended up working in male dominated fields for my entire career.  As an Evergreen grad, our mascot is the geoduck and we didn’t have majors or grades.  If you total up my credits they divide equally between sociology/anthropology and creative writing, with some computer programming language courses, art history, solar energy and statistics. It’s enabled me to make a living most of the time.

The phrase “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” did not come out of Peter Drucker’s mouth.  It grates on my nerves when it’s attributed to him and used out of context with Total Quality Management (TQM) practices. IF Peter Drucker ever said this, it’s in the context of continuous improvement, a basic tenet of TQM as defined by Edwards Deming and Peter Drucker.

My first corporate job was at a startup disrupting financial services called GNA.  The offerings were very successful, and the two founders sold a controlling interest to Weyerhaeuser, when that company was diversifying from the timber industry.  Weyerhaeuser invested heavily in learning and development and I benefited from their Managerial Skills and TQM for Services immersive learning programs.

What does culture have to do with continuous improvement? As Deming and Drucker considered culture, it wasn’t any about current initiatives like engagement, empowerment, onboarding, etc.  But continuous improvement only works where there is psychological safety.  Initially developed in manufacturing environments, anyone was empowered to stop the line for any defect.  Employees had to feel supported by the organization in stopping production of an entire line for one defect, no matter how small.

Looking back, these environments weren’t necessarily as diverse as today’s workplaces.  Psychological safety may be easier to achieve in homogenous workplaces. However, groupthink and uncritical conformity that occur in homogenous workplaces are enemies of continuous improvement.  When leadership creates safe spaces for conflicting ideas and relationship restoration after conflict resolution, they pave the way for continuous improvement.  Culture and strategy have breakfast together in continuous improvement environments.  

Where does speaking truth to power come in?  Again, my lived experience shows that cultures which support rigorous improvement, root cause analysis and “never passing a problem downstream” are the ones that create psychological safety from the ground up. TQM is a top down initiative that enlists bottom up support. At GNA, the founders and the entire leadership team were accessible to all. Weyerhaeuser’s leadership at that time was the same.  They walked around and asked questions of everyone as they were trying to figure out how continuous improvement applied in a services environment.

It’s been a long time since I was that extremely shy 23-year-old who blushed easily and was surprised that the CFO of Weyerhaeuser was asking my opinion about process improvement.  I will also never forget that he asked me what it was like to be a young woman in financial services.  He had 6 daughters and wanted to know how it would be for them.  What I took from that job of almost 9 years, was leadership in a continuous improvement environment requires the core values of integrity, accountability, humility and the acknowledgement that if we bring our whole selves to work, we’ll all make mistakes occasionally.  My goal is to create those types of environments where culture and strategy have breakfast together.