In the 2018 Btoes Insights study “the Global state of operational excellence” 53.1% or respondents say that changing the company culture is the most important thing to address. One Of the most critical challenges is to get a leadership understanding and buy-in (23.2%). Popular terms are “walk the talk” and “act the change”, all to get the employees, not “wanting change” to change by themselves, to change.


In this article, let’s reflect on what is leadership buy-in actually means. What leadership is required for a desire to change the company culture? I will argue that the key root cause for failure to sustain cultural changes sits with the inability to effectively demand, to ask for, and coach the behaviors and methods you want to be part of the new culture.


I celebrated my 20 year work anniversary in a large corporate firm just this week. All that career I have been working in product development. I had operational roles, like project manager and development group lead, and of the last ten years I spent seven years coaching leaders and product developers to improve their ways of working. In the last two years, I went back to project management, now applying my own advice – and learning goeson. When you apply your own advice, trying to accelerate the product development in your teams, you are in a high-pressure cooker that sharpens your behaviors and methods. It is a surebet you also learn something about how cultural change works.


But why bother? You could say. a project team is Not the full organization so changing that small part will not impact the full organization just like that, is it? You are right on that. the thing is,I did learn a very important thing about how change works.When I was coaching leaders to help them change the ways of working in their teams, I tended too to tell them they had to “walk the talk”. I sometimes felt frustrated because “they” didn’t and therefore changes went slow, two steps forward, one step back.


Reading books, joining classes and workshops and visiting conferences, such as the Lean Product and ProcessDevelopment Exchange (LPPDE), combined with seeing the actual work while coaching leaders and product developers, I got a deep understanding of both methods and the behaviors that make product development tick. the ideas on how to effectively run the front-end of an R&D project did shape clearly in my mind.


When working with my project teams, I notice that these clearideas are essential to get the team to work in a different I fully understand what is needed (e.g. to push the decision later, until after the knowledge is created) and why (because youthen are less likely to screw up the project because of rework) Ican effectively guide my team to learn rapidly and capture their learning concisely to keep everyone aligned. human as I am I do make many errors, but I noticed I rarely forget to apply essential aspects of the methods and behaviors to make my projects effective – just because the key points are clearly anchored within.


So. What does all of that say about how leadership buy-in? It Says that “buying in” does not stop with agreeing to the direction.Most cultural change programs have a direction that is hard to disagree with anyhow (who would disagree to “a quality first culture” for example?). What we need to have are leaders who anchor within the methods and behaviors that belong to the new culture. We need them to create a deep understanding about what those are in the context of the work of their team. a team of quality engineers, mechanical development engineers, or project managers perhaps. It is the leader of the team who instills the new behavior and the new methods by asking for it. as easy as that!


With that, the complexity to manage with operational excellence shifts from high-level, top-down communication efforts and inspirational sessions for key leaders to helping the leaders,especially those closest to where the actual work is performed,anchor the understanding of the newly required behaviors and methods. The next step is then to get leaders ask for the methods and behaviors.


That might sound easy, but it is at least as challenging as anchoring the understanding. In general, leaders ask questions in the WHAT domain. They would tell the mechanical development engineer to make the part wall thicker as they have learned in earlier projects that too thin walls lead to issues with sink marks or whatever else. Now, as we are looking to sustainably change culture, we seek to ask questions in theHOW domain. Questions that instill a certain method, order of work and related behavior, for example s/he could ask what is the knowledge that supports the choice of wall thickness of knowledge based design is what s/he is after.


Coming back to my frustration about leaders not “walking the talk”, I now realize that I didn’t invest enough time in ensuring the leaders understood in full what the new direction meant for their own teams: what methods do we want the team members touse? What are the key points of those? What behaviors am Ilooking for? Using the “communication decks” provided topdown,I only scratched the surface: I got them to buy in to the message, but failed to anchor the context-specific key points within their minds. In turn, many leaders were not asking their team members to apply the new methods and behaviors step-by-step, thereby maintaining the status quo.


Status quo is not where we need to be. Let’s turn it around and make that leadership buy-in happen for real!


This article was earlier published as part of the 2018 BTOES Insights Study.