Culture and Quality

By David

In Lean Enterprise, Ron Westrum‘s continuum of safety cultures struck a chord. His ideas resonate strongly when applied to teams making digital products where a strong link exists between the quality of what is made and the culture of the teams that made it.

Westrum identifies three types of organisational culture:

  • Pathological: command and control
  • Bureaucratic: do things by the book
  • Generative: focus on the mission

The true nature of an organisation reveals itself when things go wrong. Westrum writes (emphasis mine):

When things go wrong, pathological climates encourage finding a scapegoat, bureaucratic organizations seek justice, and the generative organization tries to discover the basic problems with the system.

Pathological culture is prone to overwork. Lean Enterprise describes overwork as wasted effort that does not deliver value to the customer, or their clients. HiPPOs are a cause of overwork in pathological setups:

We create an unsustainable “hero culture” that rewards overwork and high utilization (making sure everybody is busy) rather than doing the least possible work to achieve the desired outcomes.

On the flip side, bureaucratic culture is prone to underwork and inefficiency.

But generative culture responds to change as it happens, protecting itself against over- and underwork by allowing the doing of wrong things, provided that learning occurs, and new knowledge is shared and used to change course. Doing the least amount of work possible is misleading when viewed out of the lean startup context. Doing the least amount of work actually takes a lot of hard work to get right. When executives in pathological and bureaucratic organisations begin to understand this, things may start changing:

a high trust, generative culture is not only important for creating a safe working environment – it is the foundation of creating a high performance organisation.