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December 1st, 2021

Over the last few months as things have begun to return to ‘normal’ Bourton Group has embarked on some very rigorous 5S activity.

Like a lot of you, while our operations were forced into ‘working from home’ – we realised that there were quite a few items that were no longer necessary to our more remote ‘ways of working’.

As with most de-cluttering or streamlining exercises, we unearthed many treasures from the archives.  In our case amongst some very dodgy photographs from the ’80s of current senior team members and interview notes that would make current HR practitioners cringe – we unearthed volumes of published Bourton Group Surveys that shaped leadership thinking in many sectors during the ’80s, ’90s, and Noughties.

Reading back over some of the results of the surveys, it was particularly noticeable how relevant the topics still are, and how some of the challenges facing leaders then aren’t that different from those faced by leaders trying to improve performance today, particularly in this uncertain time we are in.

One of the surveys that struck us as worthy of a re-read is, “Culture Shock: Understanding Sources of Competitive Advantage in UK Industry” published in 2001.

Based on a sample of over 180 UK companies surveyed, an extract that still rings true today is that; “Culture is perceived as both the biggest single inhibitor to change and as the single factor that (if perfect) can most enhance a business’s competitive edge.”

The survey findings reinforce the significant role that organisational culture plays in influencing business performance and the importance of harnessing culture in the support of business objectives.

Bourton Group supports this finding wholeheartedly – based on quantitative evidence* and qualitative evidence of helping organisations to harness culture in support of changes to business strategy, structure, and ways of working.

*‘Empowered is not a dirty word’ by Roger Trapp, Independent on Sunday 28/12/97; ‘Participation ‘produces’ profit’ by Peter Marsh, Financial Times 7/1/98; Industrial and Commercial Training, Volume 30, No 4, 7/98.

The findings suggest that ignoring organisational culture carries two major risks:

  1. Missing the opportunity to harness it as a positive influence of competitiveness
  2. Allowing it to act as a negative influence by inhibiting change.
So how can an organisation exploit the opportunity offered by a positive culture and avoid the risk of a negative one?

Deciding what we mean by ‘culture’ is a useful starting point.  The common phrase ‘how we do it around here’ does not provide too many clues to companies seeking to bring about culture change.

Working with clients to help them transform their organisations has provided Bourton Group with an excellent opportunity to develop more specific definitions of the key elements of any organisation’s culture.

We have identified four main elements to developing an organisation’s culture
1. Structures and Procedures

This area describes the overall design of the organisation, the reporting structures within it, and the nature of the individual roles/responsibilities throughout. These factors differ significantly across organisations and impact the responsibility for and speed of decision making and the efficacy of information flow within the organisation.  This dimension incorporates the hard aspects of an organisations culture and its policies and procedures for:

  • Setting targets
  • Measuring and rewarding performance
  • Helping people to learn/develop
  • Formal channels available for communication
2.  Communications and Information Management

This is concerned with the interchange of information and ideas and determines how effectively information flows up, down, and across the company.  Important aspects include information about business targets, performance measures, performance feedback, and changes to ways of working as well as the ways in which successes are acknowledged and people’s contributions recognised.

It examines the availability of information, access to it in all formats, and communication practices.  It includes the ways in which people exchange views and ideas, solve problems, and are involved in changes to working practices and procedures.

3.  Relationships

This dimension describes the nature of the interactions between people vertically and horizontally across the organisation.  Formal positional power, authority, technical expertise, shared purpose, knowledge, and political influence can define these interactions. People’s relationships at work are characterised by their behaviour towards each other; the things that people say or do or don’t say or do in the workplace.

Across organisations, there are wide variations in the expectations of managers and employees, of themselves and of each other.  These variations are particularly apparent in situations involving performance feedback, employee reward, and recognition.

4.  Style

This captures the least tangible aspects of an organisation’s culture: the informal rules and procedures influencing ‘how we do things around here’.  An organisation’s cultural style is highly influenced by the values and beliefs of its people, both spoken and unspoken.  Style becomes apparent across a range of people-related issues, including:

  • Target setting
  • Performance measurement/feedback
  • Managing change
  • Learning and development and employee communication

The organisation’s style in relation to these issues is unlikely to be described in a staff handbook or to be formalised in any sense but will be understood and recognised by everyone.


These four dimensions are exhibited across a continuum from a highly traditional ‘command and control’ culture to increasing participation/employee involvement and ultimately mature self-direction or empowerment.

There is no one perfect template for a culture that will work for every organisation.  Some degrees of empowerment is more suitable for some organisations and not others.  However, alignment across the four dimensions appears to be a key factor in influencing how well the overall culture supports the business needs.  If Structures and Procedures reflect a self-directed culture and yet Communication and Information Management are highly traditional, then this is likely to hinder performance.

Understanding the main dimensions contributing to overall culture helps organisations to make the seemingly intangible more tangible.  Simple techniques like focus groups, employee surveys, and structured interviews can be used to assess the current situation against indicators of each of the four dimensions.

The same techniques can be used to describe the desired culture.  ‘Sizing the gap’ in this way helps organisations (and teams) to describe an apparently intangible task – culture change – in concrete terms and provides a ready-made agenda for change.

Now, many years on, Bourton Group still uses this framework, Organisational Culture Profile ™, to help organisations to drive performance improvement through culture change.  Making improvements to culture has become the way to make change sustainable.

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