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Maintaining the culture Featured

9:34am EDT July 22, 2002

In August, I discussed company culture, addressing the issue of handling and changing a culture that was inherited though acquisition or succession.

There is a strong relationship between the success of the business and the strength of the culture. But how can you maintain that culture as the company grows?

As a company grows, the organization needs to change. The question is, does the organization's culture also need to change or should it be maintained?

In most cases, culture should be the exception to the rule and maintained as the company grows. In many successful, growing companies, the culture has played a major role in their success. It has enabled many of these companies to stand out from the crowd.

Culture plays a major role in a business owner's ability to differentiate his company from the competitors. And, it is often tied closely to a company's critical success factors.

Culture and critical success factors

Critical success factors are those things your company does that truly make your customers your customers. They are why customers buy from you instead of from your competition.

They are practices and products that have been critical to your business achieving its current level of success and will continue to be critical to maintaining that success and growth in the future.

Business owners who realize this connection between the organization's culture and its critical success factors understand the importance of maintaining the company culture. Whether it is quick delivery, how employees handle customers or the continuing development of new products and innovative services, maintaining these factors must be top priority. The stronger the culture and the stronger the tie between critical success factors and company culture, the greater the need to maintain the culture.

Ask employees at Southwest Airlines what role their company culture has played. They know their niche, they know their customers, they know what differentiates them from their competition, they have a clear vision and they know how their unique company culture enables them to satisfy that niche and accomplish that vision.

Getting it done

Every company's culture is unique. Therefore, the methods employed by a company to maintain its culture also need to be unique.

But there is one factor that can affect the maintenance effort in any company -- strength of the culture. The stronger the culture, the more likelihood there is that the culture is important to the maintenance of the critical success factors and the easier it is to maintain.

One reason is the company's employees. Strong cultures tend to attract employees who fit well into that culture. They feel very comfortable within the culture and they want to maintain it.

Their cooperation and support make the task easier, but it is by no means a sure thing. The key to maintaining the culture still rests with management's commitment to making it a top priority.

Again, consider Southwest Airlines. Its work force more than doubled from 1991 to 1995, from fewer than 9,000 employees to nearly 20,000. It has been able to utilize numerous practices that fit perfectly into its culture, including animated videos, an employee culture exchange and a culture committee.

The culture committee, formed in 1990, has one purpose -- to perpetuate the Southwest spirit and culture. It is composed of representatives throughout the organization who believe in and are focused on maintaining that culture. Ironically, Southwest's culture frowns on committees, so it has very few of them.

Yet, it believes that the culture committee is not only necessary, it is its most important committee. If you're looking to strengthen your business, perhaps you should follow Southwest's lead. Joel Strom (jstrom@jsagrowth.com) is president of Joel Strom Associates, Inc., Growth Management. His firm works exclusively with closely held businesses and their ownership, helping them set and achieve their growth objectives while maximizing their profitability and value. Reach him at (216) 831-2663.