The Great Weight of Cultural Baggage
Lately I’ve been doing a fair bit of travelling between New Zealand and Australia. On my travels I saw many companies struggling with the same problems in running their QHSE (quality, health and safety, environmental) systems. These issues seem to crop up in every industry:
- Lack of recording of customer complaints
- Lack of recording of incidents and injuries
- Remembering to do internal audits and management reviews
- Forgetting to do the health and safety committee meetings as planned
- Keeping track of training records
- Managing contractor performance
- Doing the maintenance on time
Basically, it was the same old stuff – namely, management working from the “wing it till we get caught” principle.
Because I have worked most of my career in Australasia, I had assumed that this attitude was pervasive across all western countries. But recently I had an eye-opening chat with a manager who has worked all over the world.
This manager had worked in the compliance industry in the UK, Europe, South Africa, USA, Australia and New Zealand. He told me that the lack of compliance was most prominent in Australia and New Zealand. He said that the acceptance of lack of compliance was tolerated at the very highest levels of Management. The prevailing approach was one of “let’s leave it up to the regulators, certification or accreditation bodies to find fault and we will deal with it then”.
He’s absolutely – and depressingly – right. So what makes Australia and New Zealand unique, and not in a good way?
I believe that in our part of the world we’ve got some ingrained cultural patterns that cost our economies, communities and individuals dearly. This cultural baggage weighs us down. We need to deal with it.
For starters, take conflict avoidance – in Australasia we’re more likely to turn the other cheek than tell someone an unpalatable truth. Generally speaking Americans, for example, have absolutely no problem asking for exactly what they want in a restaurant, and if things aren’t up to par, they’re very quick to say so. In contrast, Aussies and Kiwis tend to not want to make a fuss, and hate to complain to someone’s face. We just grin and bear it, and then rant to our friends afterwards.
Another piece of cultural baggage that shapes our management style is machismo. To be macho in Australasia is to be strong and stoic in the face of difficulties. To be able to take as much punishment as can be thrown. It’s good to be a man of few words – come on, it’s only the whiny sissies who can’t hack it that make complaints! Maybe this particular piece of baggage comes from our vision of ourselves as a nation founded by very tough people who could do amazing things with number 8 fencing wire. Compare this with American culture, where speaking up is seen as a sign of strength and courage, an indication that you’re a mover and a shaker. Not so much here – a real person plods grimly on.
Then there’s the laissez faire attitude - “she’ll be right, mate!” could be the title of New Zealand’s unofficial national anthem. To get all het up over details is seen as uptight and prissy (there’s that macho thing again). Even New Zealand’s Prime Minister is not immune – the thing I hear him say most often when presented with an issue is that he is “very relaxed about that”. In New Zealand we are relaxed to a stupidly dangerous level.
Now that we can see what’s really going on, what on earth can we do about it? Cultural baggage can’t simply be jettisoned. It surrounds us and moulds us in ways we are only barely conscious of.
So what can we do?
- Awareness is key – now that we can see how the baggage works, we can start to operate in ways that take that into account. Call out the laissez faire attitude when it pops up – “That ‘she’ll be right attitude’ is not the way we do things round here”. Circumvent the macho baggage, for example, by having ways for staff to raise important safety concerns without having to do it publically. As for conflict avoidance, having a no-blame culture is a must – it’s much easier for all of us conflict avoiders to address the faults in a system than to go hunting for individuals to blame, and anyway, as Deming says “the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance”.
- Democratise data – reporting systems need to be in place and the data collected via them needs to be as open as possible (within privacy limits). This openness means that Boards, senior Management teams, managers and employees can really see what is (or isn’t) happening. Transparency is the aim.
- Hold Management accountable – managers in Australasia typically have their performance measured in terms of sales made, timeliness of orders, and bottom line numbers. We need to add compliance indicators to this list, and not in a half-hearted way either.
- Hold Boards responsible – boards knowing what is happening on the shop floor is important. Invite the board to do a walk around and talk to staff. Make the compliance system open and visible to all.
Cultural baggage is at its most dangerous when it’s invisible. Knowing about it is half the battle.
Are these your experiences or do you have a different view?