Corporate culture, safety culture, quality culture, lean culture, … We talk about culture all the time but how does a culture form?
Culture is the environment in which you work all of the time. Culture is a powerful element that shapes your work enjoyment, your work relationships, and your work processes. But, culture is something that you cannot actually see, except through its physical manifestations in your work place.
A Lean consulting friend of mine recently told me a story about how cultures form. I wanted to share with you.
There were three monkeys in a cage in a zoo. Hanging from the roof of the cage was a bunch of bananas beneath which was a ladder to enable the monkeys to climb up and reach the bananas. One of the monkeys was the juicy treat and decided to climb the ladder to get to them.
As soon as his foot touched the ladder, the remaining two monkeys were sprayed with water from high-pressure hoses. Having retrieved and eaten his first banana the first monkey went to climb the ladder again and immediately his fellow monkeys were again drenched. As the first monkey went for his third banana, the two soaked monkeys grabbed him just as he reached the ladder and threw the third monkey to the ground. It didn’t take long before all three monkeys learnt to stay away from the ladder to avoid the wrath of their comrades caused by the associated drenching.
Unbeknown to the monkeys, the high-pressure hoses were then turned off but as the monkeys no longer went near the ladder they didn’t realize this. A few days later a fourth monkey is introduced to the group. This new monkey is completely unaware of the issues the other three have experienced, so when he sees the bananas he goes to climb the ladder. Before he gets anywhere near the bananas all of the other three monkeys attack him. Having experienced this aggressive behavior the new monkey also quickly learns not to go near the ladder.
Time goes by again and a fifth monkey is introduced. As this new monkey goes to climb the ladder all four monkeys attack him, including the fourth monkey, who has never experienced the ‘drenching’ and is just reacting to the ‘way things are done round here’.
In effect, the monkeys have formed a new set of cultural behaviors, even though some of the group have no idea why things are done the way they are.
Of course, any experiment undertaken in this manner would be cruel, but it serves as a simple explanation of how cultures form. Do you think this example represents how cultures form?