"That's just our culture, and we can't change it."

"That's just our culture, and you can't change it." Last week, while presenting a workshop based on my book, A Factory of One, at the AME Conference, I was struck by the fatalism that infected so many participants. We were talking about the impediments to individual effectiveness -- the things that create waste instead of value -- and so many people said with a resigned air, "That's just our culture, and we can't change it."

The disrespect for closed doors and interruptions by coworkers that force people to multitask? That's just our culture. The expectation that we'll respond to all emails within 10 minutes? That's just our culture. The sense of entitlement (or the ignorance) that permits executives to pile multiple projects on you, despite the inevitable explosion in lead time? That's just our culture. And there's no point in fighting it.

This passive acceptance of the status quo is shocking because it's so different from the attitude that these same people take when confronting other waste-ridden systems. I don't know any hospitals that attended AME that shrug their organizational shoulders and simply accept their ventilator-associated pneumonia rate as an unavoidable outgrowth of their "nursing culture" or systems. I didn't meet any manufacturers at AME who say, "Sure we've got a 22% defect rate on our products, but that's just the culture of our machinists." I don't know of any distribution companies in attendance that think, "It's too bad that our drivers mis-deliver packages all the time, but that's just the culture of the drivers and our lousy systems."

Ridiculous. In all of those examples, the leadership teams drive relentlessly to improve the quality, cost, and reliability of their systems and processes. Accepting the status quo is unacceptable.

So why do we have such a difficult time acknowledging both the necessity and the possibility of improvement in the way our people work? Why do we view the processes by which individuals get their jobs done as something fixed, immutable, or unworthy of improving?

The evidence is clear that, to quote Tony Schwartz, the way we're working isn't working. Whether it's the expectation that people are on call 24/7, or the design of workspaces that don't allow people to focus and concentrate on their work, or the overloaded project schedule that results in frustratingly long project lead times, we're just not being smart about how to get the best results from our people.

Why do we accept the fatalistic complaint that "it's just our culture," and there's nothing we can do about it? Just because the inefficiency and waste of our current way of working doesn't directly show up on the income statement doesn't mean that we should tolerate it any more than we should accept that patients coming to our hospital get sicker when they're with us.

It's time to view individual productivity as a non-negotiable area of improvement. That's nothing more than respect for people.