I recently read a three page internal memo distributed to all staff of an international company. It told them to
1.    Focus on the customer
2.    Collaborate better between departments
3.    Reduce the amount of internal correspondence

Sounds like good advice for all companies today? However, the memo is from 31st August 1939, discovered in the company archives of Brown, Boveri and Co, now ABB. What is fascinating is that after 76 years (with a slight adaptation to modern technology such as email), much of the message could apply today.

Serve the customer

The guidelines required, first and foremost for all staff to focus on the customer. This included responding promptly to customer questions, dealing with technical problems without blaming the customer, ensuring complete and clear operating instructions and meeting delivery deadlines. The challenge in the 21st century is that customers see these service levels as normal. Their expectations are now much higher. 76 years later customers are still a focus, but now it must be faster, more responsive and with innovative solutions.

Collaborate better internally

The memo using an analogy that departments do not have “watertight dividing walls”. encourage more collaboration and cooperation between departments. It followed with advice that most disagreements could be resolved with an open conversation and thinking about the good of the business as a whole. This advice has stood the test of time. How many email wars today could be prevented if this advice was followed?

It seems that after 76 years internal accounting processes have not advanced far in solving debates about the charging of costs internally. The 1939 memo tells people that these discussions cost more time and money than this issue itself. Imagine how much time and money could have been saved in 76 years if internal charging issues never needed to be discussed.

Reduce internal correspondence

If you thought too much internal correspondence was only an issue of the email era, then you’re wrong. It was an issue in 1939 with typewriters too. Employees are informed that 1) every internal memo costs time and money 2) answering detailed questions or petty issues kills creativity and 3) takes the focus away from the real business issues. In the email era, have organisations and people learnt a new technology but not learnt a new way of working? Today it is so much easier to blast out an email with multiple people in cc without thinking. Typing a memo in triplicate was more of a process. If the manager who wrote this memo could travel through time to now – what would he think of all our emails?

Overall, it makes me wonder what has changed in 76 years. Organisations are still debating over internal costs, developing campaigns to focus on customers and facing challenges with internal collaboration. Writing these guidelines didn’t change behaviour or the culture 76 years ago. A new version of these guidelines will have little impact now on your organisation. It is time for a fresh approach – looking at how to really change behaviour and culture by looking at how people and business processes interact. While cultural change is not easy, it should not take 76 years!

How has your company developed in 76 years? Are you still seeing the same issues about collaboration and communication reappearing year after year? Pipsy GmbH is a consultancy focusing on developing real behaviour and cultural change in organisations and people. For more information see an example of cultural change.