Build a Corporate Culture the Old Fashioned Way: Institutionalize It

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I lived in Japan for eight years in the ’60s and ’70s, when it was hard to miss crowds of coworkers beginning their day with calisthenics and brief motivational speeches by managers. At the beginning of every workday any open space might come alive with neat rows of jumping jacks and jills. Even in offices, people did it behind their desks.

And this wasn’t just for workdays. One summer I spent a week camping near the ocean in Niigata Prefecture. Every morning Japan’s top-rated radio program blared calisthenics from loudspeakers, like a vacation reveille. Hundreds of campers up and down the beach dutifully hopped from their sleeping bags to do squats and stretches in unison.

Early morning calisthenics apparently became a national pastime during World War II, when the military government decided that every citizen should be ready to repel the expected Allied invasion. Since their only weapons would be sharpened bamboo poles, the citizen soldiers would obviously have to stay in good physical condition.

This invigorating ritual also came in handy after the war, when assembly-line workers streamed into factories to help create Japan’s industrial “miracle.”

It was never hard to get most Japanese to participate. Since the feudalistic days Japan has been a nation of poor rice farmers; crops failed without highly focused cooperative effort during planting and harvest seasons.

The Japanese model spread across East Asia and attracted the attention of some important visitors. At a Korean tennis-ball factory in the 1970s, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton was inspired to institute a similar kind of team-building activity, and it became part of the retail behemoth’s corporate culture.

Even today, as each shift starts all Wal-Mart employees everywhere must follow a manager’s lead as he or she does a few calisthenics and group shouts of “Good morning, [colleague]!” — clap, clap, stomp, stomp — “Whoo-whoo!” To make the exercise more relevant, part of the group cheer includes a hearty chanted prediction of the store’s success.

Wal-Mart believes this helps employees more efficiently move over 5.5 billion cases of merchandise a year. But this practice also blurs the line separating corporate process (for greater efficiency) and company culture (which should revolve largely around inefficient people).

Raising their hands in a pledge to work safely reminds employees to help reduce company costs. But is it viable culture for smaller businesses in the social media age, when every company is increasingly focused on HR and employees are increasingly fractious? Stay tuned.

Carey Giudici
Betterwords for Business
Carey has a unique, high-energy approach to help small business owners, entrepreneurs and in-transition professionals make their Brand and content achieve superior results in the social media. He calls it "Ka-Ching Coaching" because the bottom line is always . . . your bottom line. He has developed marketing and training material for a Fortune 5 international corporation, a large public utility, the Embassy of Japan, the University of Washington, and many small businesses and entrepreneurs.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Carey,
    We are a small company dedicated to making the sales channel (distributors, Systems Integrators, VARs and dealers) work more effectively.

    When I founded the company, I had a vision of what we would be. I have shared this vision with our staff. Can you toss in a few suggestions to move it from vision to culture?

  2. Thanks for the great question, Frank. I’ll be posting an article later today with a fuller answer. For now, think about what any living culture embodies: 1) significant value for every stakeholder, 2) a process to encourage authentic engagement, and 3) stakeholders’ feelings of personal ownership over that process. These qualities are shared by every culture, in every age and environment.

    Every business has a culture. The bad news is that the existing version typically drains rather than sustains the business’ potential: it lacks one or more of these essential qualities.

    The good news: social media communication fosters the same three characteristics as the best “offline” cultures.

    In other words, everyone on your staff who uses the Internet is already primed to move from vision to culture. Your job is to begin emphasizing those characteristics–along with a commitment to effective communications–as part of your vision.

    Then every stakeholder will start changing from an observer to an active supporter of your company’s new culture. They will help nurture its continued growth too, because they were there at the creation!

    Soon I’ll be posting my introduction to a simple, proven method that helps companies move from the leader’s private vision to a shared culture. Thanks again for your interest and input.

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