Codifying Culture For Operational Consistency

If you think of culture as intangible or "squishy," you should probably think again. Institutionalizing culture is the only way to ensure everyone is rowing in the same direction.

My career within a single company spanned 50 years as I climbed from controller to the C-suite of Cintas, a uniform rental company. Among the many lessons learned along the way included the need to define and operationalize our culture. To embed culture, it must be institutionalized.

At Cintas, our culture consisted of three components:

A principal objective, which involved taking care of our partners (employees) so that they could do best job possible for customers and shareholders;

Corporate character, which can be summed up as absolute professionalism;

Management systems, or the policies and procedures under which we operated.

Having a principal objective simplified decision-making. Rather than considering multiple factors or weighing many potential outcomes, we only had to consider which approach would result in exceeding customer expectations and maximizing long-term value for shareholders and partners.

Also, we referred to employees as “partners” at Cintas. Defining and articulating our corporate character to our partners and employment candidates provided a clear vision of how we wanted our organization to function.

Additionally, we determined that without management systems and specific guidelines in place, there’s no control within an organization. Management may believe they’ve clearly laid out instructions for how work is to be done, but unless it’s committed to writing and communicated, it’s very likely that separate teams or business units or facilities will operate differently from one another. Realizing this led us at Cintas to write an operations booklet, The Spirit Is the Difference, providing a brief history of the company, describing what it was like to work at Cintas, and articulating what was important to us as an organization.

Documenting procedures and policies for how things are done across the organization ensured consistency and helped eliminate misinterpretation, particularly as the company grew. At Cintas, the operations manual compiled the experiences and expertise of its most skilled managers so that when a question arose about how to handle a situation, partners didn’t have to hunt down a supervisor or manager. They could open the manual and read the company’s policy and procedure.

Making sure everyone’s in sync

I often used a boat analogy to explain culture. “Every organization is like a boat,” I would say. “And in that boat you have a bunch of different people. Each of those people has an oar. In many organizations, half the people are rowing in one direction, and the other half rowing in another. They don’t make much progress forward. But with a majority rowing in the same direction, the progress made is so much faster. They become a united force few other companies can compete with, because they have a single goal everyone is working together to achieve.

The goal of introducing policies and procedures to get everyone working in sync is consistency. Assuring customers that they can expect the same level of service, the same quality of garment, the same professionalism at every level of the company is what consistency looks like.

When a corporate culture is operationalized across the organization, it becomes easy to spot if someone does something out of sync with expectations—and therefore, it’s easy to rectify or change. Corporate character hinges on professionalism at all levels, as well as on forming collegial relationships across the organizational hierarchy. All employees need to know that their input into how the company can improve is welcome. We make it perfectly acceptable for everyone to bring up any issue or idea with the boss. Because staff knows that their opinions and ideas are valued, they become likely catalysts for positive change.

Storytelling as cultural indoctrination

Realizing the importance of conveying the company’s culture to every current and future partner, we began holding half-day corporate culture seminars for new management employees. We used The Spirit as the Difference as our textbook of sorts, and we worked to really bring that book to life for everyone in that day’s session through stories. It’s one thing to read about a particular policy and quite another to hear about that policy in action.

During these sessions, we shared stories about situations with customers and how we addressed them to demonstrate best practices and help partners understand the factors we wanted them to consider as they thought through how best to deal with conflicts that arose. In all cases, the decisions came down to what would exceed expectations for that customer—not the cost or the inconvenience to us, but to what degree a particular solution would satisfy and delight that customer.

Ensuring culture remains dynamic

Great companies have operational systems. However, those systems aren’t static. They have to be kept up to date, they have to be appropriate for the environment that the company currently operates in, and they need to be written such that everyone understands that exceptions are okay as long as the process to request an exception is followed.

Exceptions to the Cintas operations manual were rare but did occur from time to time, reflecting the need for policies to adapt to changing conditions. Policies were set with the understanding that they wouldn’t apply to every single situation that arises. Therefore, managers at Cintas not only had the right but also the responsibility to request an exception when they believed the application of a policy wasn’t in the company’s best interest. We didn’t want people to follow a policy to the letter of the law if it resulted in a poor outcome for the company. We wanted them to simply make a case for an exception — providing a reason that the policy should be waived in that situation.

To instill an operational culture across an organization, use these five essential guidelines:

1. Document policies and procedures. Create a comprehensive operations manual to establish consistent processes throughout the organization. That uniformity helps reduce any variability in decision-making or execution. An operations manual can also serve as a training tool for new employees.

2. Update policies regularly. Review policies and procedures annually to confirm that they reflect the current marketplace and environment. Update those that are out of date.

3. Build in flexibility. Allow adaptability by communicating that exceptions to management systems are permitted, and that it’s an employee’s responsibility to speak up when following a policy will be detrimental to the company.

4. Establish and adhere to corporate character. Operationalize high expectations, ethical conduct, and an approach that aligns with providing exceptional service.

5. Embed culture broadly. Corporate culture should represent all of the experiences and standards of an organization’s workforce, rather than an individual leader’s personality. Culture needs to be institutionalized to last.

Robert J. Kohlhepp joined Cintas Corporation in July 1967 as controller. Over a span of 50 years with Cintas, he was promoted to positions of general manager, vice president and treasurer, executive vice president, president, and CEO, then served as Vice Chair and Board Chair until retiring in 2016. Additionally, Kohlhepp has served on several association, corporation, nonprofit and university boards. His new book is Building a Better Organization. Visit robertkohlhepp.com.