21st Century Management and the Virtues of Operator Subculture


This is a second sequel to #hypertextual review of Edgard Schein Organizational Culture and Leadership. As you can tell : a very inspiring essay.

The first one was about the 10 dimensions of a Learning Culture. This one is about subcultures. Schein identifies different levels of culture : macro-cultures (nations etc …), organization cultures, generic subcultures (groups within or across organizations) and microcultures (microsystems within organizations).

This blog post will focus on the third one : generic sub-cultures. According to Schein there are three of them : operator, engineering and executive. The key takeaway from Schein is that alignment between these three subcultures is critical for the organization to thrive.

This model is a fascinating way to understand how knowledge work as evolved during the last decade and is a great tool to assess your own organisation.

The idea behind this post is that Executive subculture has shifted from Engineering influence in the 20th century to Operator  influence in the 21st. And here’s why …

Operator’s Subculture

These are Schein’s basic assumptions of this subculture (emphasis is mine):

  1. Action of any organization is ultimately the action of people
  2. Success of enterprise depends on operational people knowledge, skill, learning ability and commitment
  3. Knowledge required are local and based on organization core technology and specific experience
  4. No matter how carefully engineered the production process is or how carefully rules and routines are specified front line employees know that they will have to deal with unpredictable contingencies (Anything that can go wrong will go wrong – Murphy’s law)
  5. Most operations involve interdependencies between separate elements of the process so we must be able to work as a collaborative team in which communication, openness, mutual trust and commitment are highly valued
  6. we depend on management to give us the proper resources, training and support to get our jobs done.
fig 1 : Schein’s 3 generic organziation subcultures (click to enlarge)

Per Schein’s definition, Operator culture is a virtuous one based on universal values : people, learning, experience, dealing with the unpredictable, collaboration and trust. There are many dimensions in here that we also find in his 10 dimensions of learning culture. Besides, as the great man states :  To fully understand how things work in a total organization, you must, therefore, observe the informal culture which is the interplay of the various operator subcultures.

Last but not least, operator work is also virtuous because it is a pragmatic one, very close to reality (making things, interacting with the customers etc …). Matthew Crawford explains in his wonderful essay Shop class as Soulcraft how this proximity to reality helps people in developing self-reliance and individual agency and in making the direct experience of their responsibility towards the material environment. Simply put : it helps people in making sense out of their work. 

Engineering subculture

Schein’s assumptions of engineering subcultures are as follows (emphasis is mine) :

  1. Ideal world is one of elegant machines and processes working in perfect precision and harmony without human intervention
  2. People are the problem – they make mistakes and should be designed out of the system wherever possible
  3. Nature can and should be mastered (Doing culture) – that which is possible should be done (proactively optimistic).
  4. Solutions must be based on science and available technology
  5. Real work is to solve puzzles and overcome problems
  6. Work must be oriented toward useful products and outcomes
fig 2 : Schein subcultures and values (click to enlarge)

Core principles behind engineering culture is problems solving using abstract solutions to reach for perfect precision and harmony.

Looking at the philosophical side of it while considering its virtues, there is a problem here. According to Crawford, the problem with Engineering subculture, and the crux of the problem in making sense out of it, is that it celebrates possibilities not realities, it tends to refuse to confront with reality. Even worst with the division of work and processes designing,  “An extraordinary degree of cleverness has been put in the service of eliminating men cleverness”.

Executive Culture

Schein’s assumptions of executive subcultures are as follows (emphasis is mine) :

  1. Financial focus : without financial survival and growth, there are no returns to shareholders or to society. Financial survival = perpetual war with competitors
  2. self image : in a war you can’t trust anyone. CEO = lone hero, alone yet omniscient, total control, indispensable. Subordinates only tell you what they think you want to hear > CEO must trust his own judgement more and more – lack of accurate feedback increases leader’s sense of rightness
  3. org and management are intrinsically hierarchical. hierarchy is measure of success and primary mean to maintain control
  4. people are necessary evil not intrinsic value. resources like other to be acquired and managed.
  5. well oiled organization does not need whole people only activity they are contracted for

Again, it is very tricky to find any virtue out of this description. The vision proposed by the organizational guru is quite schematic but still very relevant in most of today’s organisations.

20th Century Management and the engineering subculture

fig 3 : 20th century management and subcultures (click to enlarge)

20th century management has been greatly influenced by Taylorism and scientific management. As such, it has drawn on engineering sub-culture to improve efficiency of organizations. As Peter Drucker reported this has worked wonders in the world of mass production has it has improved 50 fold manual worker productivity. In the rather simple world of the early 20th Century, abstract solutions has worked.

However, engineering sub-culture has not succeeded in such spectacular fashion in knowledge work in a complex world. One of the reason is that Engineering sub-culture has been using the same method as for mass production : adding layers of complicatedness to fix complexity. At organisation level, Yves Morieux from BCG provides an interesting perspective to this and shows that this approach just the does not scale.

21st century management and the virtues of Operator Subculture

21st century management has understood that the world is now far too complex to work it out based on the sole engineering sub-culture. Predefined engineered solutions will not solve the business problems companies face in an interconnected world.

Rather, today’s successful companies know that the complexity can only be solved when the organisation is empowered to learn. Deb Lavoy wrote a telling article on that subject:

Why does this matter? It suggests that anything will work — anything that you execute with learning built-in. It’s why Amazon and Google work — they have amassed decades of experimental “do something, measure, and clinically iterate toward ever better” results. They’ve learned many things, but they’ve learned by asking questions, and measuring results.

This is the core motive of Lean Management : in order to solve the many business problems that the organisation face at all levels of the hierarchy, people have to be empowered with a method to learn through experiment. This is the reason why PDCA is used throughout the Lean organisation.

Besides, and this where its sheer beauty lies, Lean aligns all sub-cultures thanks to Gemba walk. This implies that manager spend a significant amount of time at work going to the shop floor, where the job is being carried out and where the value is created, to observe and discuss with the teams to fully understand problems. The aim is to show respect, question the teams about the way they do their work and how they could improve. This Gemba walk is basically connecting the dots between the three subcultures.

I have written before about the virtues of Social Software (the same could have been written about agile methodologies or Lean). My hypothesis back then was that the virtue came from the fact that it fosters a strong culture. In the light of Schein master piece, I tend to believe that if these types of 21st century management are so virtuous, it is mostly because they all draw on operator sub-culture to learn, adapt and optimize engineered systems, the only way to thrive in 21st century complex world.

fig 4 : 21st century management and subcultures (click to enlarge)


  1. This article is very interesting. I’m wondering if you have had any success in a practical application of this model.

    The organization I work for has an invisible Management Culture that tightly controls the “voice” of the Operator Subculture in order to maintain the appearance of strong “High Performance” Work Systems. Any dissent from this ideal narrative by Operators is dismissed as insignificant and ignored. Operators are hired by a Theory Y selection criteria but there seems to be a general sentiment that left on their own accord they become Theory X. Personally, I believe Operators are “Actually Y” and by this I mean that the traits of Theory Y are a natural proclivity and not contingent on being “treated as if” these traits are real by Managers. I further believe that when you combine “Actually Y” traits with Schein’s Operator Sub Culture traits in a HPWS atmosphere, you get….exactly what the Organization Design is designed to do. I’m attracted to your 21st Century model because I think it can get the Organizational Design “back to the should”.

    Managers are recruited from STEM Universities as Engineers, are promoted to Management, and can become Executives if they play their cards right. One key reason an invisible Management Culture is needed is because all Managers rotate roles every 3-5 years and in order for this process to work in the long run there has to be a level of immunity and impunity granted as they come into and move out of each role. “The image of…” is very important to my Organization so even though it’s natural that some level of immunity and impunity is essential for the continuity of this constant change , “anxiety avoidance” dictates that it is something to never be discussed. Operators avoid the anxiety of this constant by the mantra “good or bad, it’s only 3-5 years” and never fully invest trust in any manager. To a large extent, manufacturing facilities are training grounds for engineers to learn how to be managers and for managers to learn how to be executives, so they are given a wide berth in terms of what “leadership style” they use. My observation in my 25 years with this organization is anything goes as long as it produces results. Operators are occasionally invited to provide feedback for their managers but negative feedback is ignored and since they have no say in the weeding out of “bad managers”, they generally either keep mum or advocate for their promotion. This might seem counterintuitive but it gets the bad manager out of their hair quicker. Ideally a bad manager doesn’t exceed their 3 years and good manager gets to stay for 5.

    All that said, at the end of the day, most managers are good and my organization has good intent and it does good work. I care deeply for the people in it and am fully invested in our success. It is just blinded by what it can’t see and it doesn’t know that it has blinders on. I believe that success in the 21st Century will require the HPWS to be operated by Operators and not managed by Managers. If you haven’t guessed it by now, I am an Operator. This means that I am an employee with no voice and no power, up against an invisible empire. Yet I persist. It’s like a David and Goliath story except I am a 55 year old female and I want to help Goliath not hurt him.

    Can you give offer me any advice for moving forward? How do I get my Organization to recognize that I am “calling them in” and not calling them out? What would you do if you were in my steel toed boots?

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