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  • John R. Durant

Culture Is Action: The Polaris Example

Culture is less about declarations and more about what people, tools, and systems do and how they function. Polaris Inc, manufacturer of ATVs, snowmobiles, and motorcycles helps prove the point that culture is mostly action.

Polaris Inc. welcomed my eldest son to its manufacturing and engineering facility in Roseau Minnesota for an internship this summer. As a mechanical engineer, he was eager to see for himself how the decisions engineers and product designers make ultimately impact the way the vehicles are produced and assembled. He and I spoke regularly during the summer, and I enjoyed hearing about his experiences. Among many things, he expressed appreciation for the dedicated people who trained him on “B Line”, at the injection molding facility, and elsewhere. Of particular interest to me was what he understood to be the company culture and philosophy and especially how he learned them. From what he shared, Polaris presents an example of how culture is less about declarations and more about what people, tools, and systems do and how they function. Culture is mostly action.

Polaris Inc, manufacturer of ATVs and snowmobiles helps prove company culture is action
Polaris helps prove that company culture is action.

The ephemeral effect of new employee orientation

Of course, establishing your core values and operating principles during training such as new employee orientation (NEO) is valuable. In 2008, Mesut Akdere and Steven W. Schmidt published their findings from an empirical study examining employee perceptions of quality management at three different stages. They measured perceptions before NEO (Phase I), just after NEO (Phase II), and then one month later, after employees had spent time in the workplace (Phase III). They found that NEO had a positive impact between the first two phases but that the trend did not continue between the next two phases. Once people were in the workplace doing their day-to-day job, their perceptions decreased. The researchers noted, “The learning that took place during employee orientation training did not continue once the employee entered the workplace.”

Why this happens goes beyond the scope of the study of Dr.’s Akdere and Schmidt, although they do recommend continuing education as essential to combatting knowledge attrition. This seems sensible. However, on its own, constant education will not be enough. The truth is, far too often employees hear messages from HR, executives, and trainers that contradict their real-world experience in their daily jobs.

Training and messaging must align with real-world experience
Training & messaging must align with daily experiences

For example, one of my past employers frequently preached a philosophy of employees being “the company’s most important asset.” Yet, evidence gleaned on the job told a different story. Desks and tables were old and worn, chairs were broken, carpets (where they existed) were frayed and badly damaged, the breakroom had a permanently broken faucet, and the employee benefits package was thinner than the scratch-off coating on a lottery ticket. Examples of disregard like this were everywhere. What’s worse, the company asserted “quality in everything we do” as one of its primary values. The incongruity was galling. Those of us in the “rank and file” had a shared sense of unity about the company’s overt hypocrisy. No matter what "corporate" said, we all knew the real score. After a few weeks on the job, no amount of training, even if delivered by the best instructors using the best curriculum, could convince us that “quality” really mattered. Sadly, the company’s sagging results and frequent customer complaints confirmed it.

More “show” and less “tell”

My son’s experience at Polaris was fortunately quite different. Although the company is likely not perfect in aligning its cultural values in every possible way (no company is), his impression was that they were seriously trying and succeeding. Some of the things they seem to prize include efficiency, safety, quality, and accuracy. I do not know if these are in their stated cultural philosophy, but they were part of the day-to-day experiences he related to me. For example, in some work areas, the company furnishes two sets of identical tools with torque sockets welded to them. Having multiple versions of essential tools ready to go minimizes stoppages on the assembly line. Requiring employees to swap out sockets on a ratchet handle would cause inevitable delays and failures. By providing employees with the extra set of tools, the company takes an important step in reinforcing its philosophy and its values: work quickly, make no mistakes, keep the line moving. I asked my son how much time Polaris spent preaching its philosophy versus living it. He didn’t hesitate: “It’s not even close. Of course, we have useful training, and there are posters around that remind us what's important. But they don’t need to spend much time preaching, because it’s just baked into every aspect of the environment, processes, tools, management, and products. It’s just what we do.”

You can make a difference today

Polaris is an example of what happens when a company strives, however imperfectly, to align the everyday experience of its employees to its values. And, this can be achieved virtually anywhere. Each one of us has a responsibility to look around and propose or make changes today. Each of us can do something right now to change our environment, processes, tools, or operations and bring them into closer harmony with the company’s philosophy. For example, do you see boxes, trash, and unused furniture crammed into closets or dumped into infrequently accessed hallways? Chances are high that disorder and disorganization clash with your organization’s values and culture. Do something about it! Does the entire team secretly complain that their workstations are from an era of Blockbuster DVD rentals even though the company brags about its culture of innovation? Be the spark that leads to desperately-needed change! Do proclamations about being customer-centric strike you as disingenuous when you see ballooning support queues, poor ticketing hygiene, and a faulty phone system? Put a plan together and make a case for how to help the company live up to its ideals.

Declaring company values, ethics, and guiding philosophies form an important part of helping create a sense of unifying culture. But the actions, tools, processes, and environments that are permitted and fostered make a much bigger impact. The attributes of real-world daily experiences promote culture more meaningfully than is achieved by forcing people into meetings about "Quality", screen-printing "Safety" on tchotchke’s and coffee mugs, thumbtacking posters about "Integrity" to hallway bulletin boards, or self-righteous boasting on a website. The details of hands-on experiences can undermine or reinforce the convictions employees have about its organization's values, principles, and philosophies. Fortunately, it is not hard to begin bringing the statements about culture and the actual culture into harmony. Any one of us can start by changing something about ourselves or the surrounding environment today.


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