Cultural evaluation Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2009

At first Damon Canfield viewed New Product Innovations Inc. as a family.

Sure, it’s something a lot of people say about their company, but when Canfield, who is NPI’s president and CEO, got the company off the ground as a GE Plastics and FITCH joint venture in 1992, the group was small and a good culture came organically.

As NPI grew — today it has 55 employees and offices in Columbus as well as China — the old culture got lost in the shuffle. As a new culture began to grow on its own, it didn’t stop the turnkey solutions provider for product design, development and manufacturing services, but suddenly it felt like the company was running with weights on its back.

“So we’ve spent a whole lot of time on the glue, the characteristics of what we want,” Canfield says. “We all had some varying degrees of where our culture was and we’ve made a push to fix that; it’s kind of the secret sauce to our success.”

Smart Business talked with Canfield about why not keeping an eye on culture can bring your company to a halt.

Keep an eye out for a culture that’s slowing you down. That comes through a series of revelations. We started to see some evidence on how things were starting to fray a little bit. For example, I spend a lot of time in Asia and could see some inconsistencies with the way things were being done. It’s kind of like we lost the formula, the outcome is not what you want. So I had to go back to what part of the formula got away from me and I had to go back to work on my team and see what we thought was missing. We went back to the blackboard, we got back to the cultural piece, and then we realized there were a few areas that were out of sync, and we were willing to sit down and look at what we do, and we had to stand up here and say, ‘Let’s go back to work.’

Define your culture. If I look back at it in the early days of the company, we had a culture from the people involved. You don’t really need to define your culture when you’re down to some very basic elements, you don’t need a lot of time to talk about your culture — it’s kind of like a small family. But you get to the point where you grow and you start to top out and you can’t figure out what’s missing, you start coming to a halt a little. Those of us that started it knew the culture, but we didn’t realize that new people didn’t understand everything we were doing. We just missed it or lost it or just didn’t see it, and I think in so many organizations you can take culture and pick on it a little bit, but it’s the cement in the foundation.

So that’s when the management team all dropped back and we started to work on the definition of our culture and say, ‘We have to be able to define it, and we better get straight.’ So that’s kind of the process, and strangely enough, what we realized is that because of a lack of a clear definition there were some subcultures, which weren’t necessarily bad but were being defined by other people, and I realized how important it is to communicate expectations.

So (the management team) just agreed that we’d go to some padded room and talk it out. We first went back and got all the classical organizational development of culture pieces and looked at how it was described. From there, we immediately took the ones we agreed on and went from there. After we did that piece, we said it’s equally important to define those that we don’t want and then define what we didn’t want to be, it seemed to be as valuable to tell them the things that we didn’t want and that was an internally grown process.

Be willing to say you don’t know. I can tell you from where I sit that I’m built as the kind of guy that was never satisfied. I was of the ilk that if something wasn’t going the way we thought that it should, you have to figure out what’s not working or you have to accept the fact that it’s time to make something else. It’s just a matter of whether or not you, as the person who starts the company, can keep your ego in check and can accept the idea that the king doesn’t have all of his clothes on. It’s not natural for everybody to step back and be self-reflective, and there are times when I can’t put my finger on it, so we have not hesitated to go outside and seek help (from consultants). … I don’t have all the answers, we’ve always been able to stand up and say this doesn’t work. Everybody who has a piece of it wants it to be successful, you just check everybody’s head and say, ‘We all want this to be successful,’ and it’s never failed to help us find the answer.

Look for signs that the pieces are coming together. I worked under the Welch era (at GE Plastics), and Jack was a master of taking a big vision and turning it into something very straightforward, and he would talk about it until he was sick of talking about it, and then he would wait to see how long it took everyone else to talk that way. He’d wait to hear them talk it into their own plans to see that it was sticking. So taking a page out of that book is what we’re doing now — is everyone taking these things and instilling them in what they’re doing? So when you have other folks in the company working on entrepreneurial things and they’re taking that lead from us and going off in areas and directions, that’s when you know it’s starting to take.

How to reach: New Product Innovations Inc., (614) 410-3974 or www.npi.com