Corporate Culture Found in the Kitchen

Stan. Sewitch

From the 8/21/03 Daily Transcript

If you've ever gone into the kitchens and break rooms of company offices, you will have realized that there is a correlation between how that room is maintained (and by whom), and the general cultural demeanor of the company. The kitchen in a company is like the kitchen in a fraternity, or a college dormitory, or a house fall of roommates. Everybody and nobody is responsible for keeping it clean and tidy.

Back when I worked for a small biotech company in the late"80s, the kitchen, became. a point of almost overwhelming public discussion amongst management. "We have a bunch of slobs in this place!" bemoaned, the CEO', who thought that good science could not be expected in an organization where the refrigerator was filled with molding old paper lunch sacks full of unrecognizable organic material. One scientist joked" "I can't tell the difference between the lunch refrigerator and the one we keep our proprietary fungal spores in!" The debate raged on. The CEO loudly complained to whomever he could find. He made it a point of management meetings. Finally one Friday, he could stand it no longer. He waited until all the employees had left and then he went to work. On Monday morning, the kitchen and break room was spotless. The refrigerator was empty, and sweet-smelling. The cupboards were neat and orderly. And the CEO, was walking around with his arm in a sling.

In his frustrated, irritated zeal, he had filled a huge trashcan with old lunches and spoiled food from the fridge. He had grabbed a handle, turned and attempted to pull the can up onto his shoulder, like he used to do when he worked on his father's farm in Missouri as a boy. But this can weighed close to 200 pounds, and it had been a good while since he had slung anything over his shoulder.
That kitchen stayed fairly clean for a few weeks. And then it slid back into the poor condition it previously enjoyed. Nobody felt compelled to "own" the tasks involved. Our own kitchen at RSM McGladrey has had a similar history. It never really gets that bad, but a certain amount of disorder, has been consistently tolerated by all the employees. So the cultural message has been: "Keep it mostly clean, but don't go out of your way to raise it to the next notch. Everybody should clean up after themselves anyway." And there was an unspoken assumption: "It's the job of the administrative staff to keep this place in order anyway."

Well, I walked into the kitchen one day recently, opened the cupboard to get a knife to spread some butter on my muffin, and I was shocked at what I saw. The silverware was now separated into neat baskets, instead of piled in a heap! The paper plates were divided according to size, rather than stacked in one tall "Cat in the Hat" pillar rising to the moon! I raced, to the refrigerator in eager anticipation. It was cleaned and neat as well, with no half-used ketchup packs dripping tomato goo onto the shelves! There was only one coffee creamer opened, rather than 10, all of which had one half ounce of creamer in them!

I raced around the offices, asking, "Who cleaned up the kitchen? !" The answer came: It was James and Christina. James Vanderspek and Christina Marquez. My heroes.

James, without urging or cajoling, took it upon himself to begin a new culture in our office. By his actions, James was saying, "I'm not going to wait to be asked. I'm not going to assume that it's beneath my station as a manager. I'm not going to badger others to do it. I'm not going to wait until I'm completely (and publicly) enraged at the poor housekeeping skills of our employees. I'm just going to get it done and set the example."

In the realm of organizational assessment and diagnosis of a company's "personality," there is no better litmus test than the kitchen. Go there first, as you may attempt to understand an organization's issues. Talk to people about the. kitchen. Watch them as they go about their personal business there. You will learn about the company's sense of team, its commitment to personal responsibility and. its management methods. You will see how it reveals or conceals its "true" work ethic. You will see who its leaders really are.

Sewich is managfing director of consulting services, RSM McGladrey, a full-service, international consulting and financial services firm. He can be reached at
Source Code: 20030820tzb



Stan Sewitch
HRG, Inc.

Stan SewitchStan is the founder and CEO of HRG, Inc. Formed in 1989, HRG initially provided organizational, operational, human resources and strategic consulting to hundreds of high-tech and middle-market companies. HRG's service assets were acquired by RSM McGladrey in 1999, and Stan continued with RSM until October of 2004. During his tenure with RSM, Stan was a Senior Partner, leading the southern California strategy and organizational consulting practice, comprised of four offices and serving clients throughout the western U.S. as well as other states. Stan left RSM to continue with HRG, developing it as a center for high-level expertise and investment financing for innovation-based ventures. HRG provides expertise and funding to qualified organizations, and consulting to clients of all types in strategy, organizational effectiveness and executive leadership development.

Stan also formed two other companies. In 1990, he launched Emlyn Systems, a software company publishing a human resources information system. In 1991 he co-founded Chromagen, a biotechnology company endeavoring to commercialize proprietary assays for drug research.

Prior to his entrepreneurial adventures, Stan held senior management positions in operations and human resources. He was manufacturing director for TRW's LSI products division in San Diego. LSI was the first company to produce one-micron analog-to-digital converters and high-speed digital signal processors in CMOS. Stan was also operations director for Elm Corporation, a salmon fishery in Bethel, Alaska. Stan's human resources management positions included Martin Marietta Aluminum, Smith International, TRW and Mycogen Corporation.

Stan holds an M.S. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from California State University, Long Beach, and a B.A. in Psychology from San Diego State University.

Stan authored a weekly column on various issues in business for the San Diego Daily Transcript, entitled "Notes from the Corporate Underground" and is working on a book of the same title. He is a frequent speaker at professional and trade organizations. He was a faculty instructor for UCSD's Extension School of Engineering for five years, teaching a course in technical group leadership.

Personal interests include teaching the martial art of Kenpo and playing bass in the local rock band, "Big Blue Cat".