On her morning circuit through the plant she notices everything. She shakes her head at the current state knowing it is good, but not good enough. Progress toward goals for staff behavior, working conditions, material use, and productivity moves at a fraction of the pace she would prefer. Today she wants to change it all. Her frustration is borne of a healthy impatience, and she understands that her true challenge is to prioritize key changes and to make them last.
Making and sustaining the right changes will require all the discipline that can be marshaled by this leader, and those of us who share her challenges. First, she will need to select a good starting change. After that it won’t be simple, but there are a few proven steps that will safeguard healthy movement toward the desired future state.
Picking a battle she will win is of primary importance. The scale of the change should be determined by the time and resource that can be dedicated to setting a precedent. The desired outcome must be valued in itself, as well as acting as a beta test of the process and determination to change. Scale and complexity of the task should be considered. For example, if reduction of finished goods inventory is a key objective, then smaller wins to organize work centers, streamline order entry, and reduce set-up times may be preliminary steps. It is a smart choice to start with a scaled, winnable, beta test of the change model. Create a real and lasting change in order flow, organization of the maintenance department or a single work center, get a win and sustain it.
We North Americans seem to see our penchant for questioning authority as a patriotic virtue. This cultural default is often paired with a company’s reputation for enthusiastic change efforts derailed by distraction. Overcoming resistance will require that the reputation be aired with opinion leaders across the organization, both those titled and self-appointed, to address how this change will be different. Principal to that conversation is a discussion of why the change is essential, how it will impact the employees, and how they can participate in the success. In this discussion the change is seen as a proverbial rock thrown into a pond. The discussants will anticipate and help plan for the ripples of the change radiating across the organization.
Commit to change
Once the objectives are agreed upon all parties must commit time and resources toward their success. Documentation of the agreement, in the form of a statement, policy, or a standard operating procedure, may be signed by all to formalize the intention to support the effort. Measurement of progress, as well as obstacles to progress, should be quantified and reported to all parties regularly. Showing the connection between daily work and contribution to the change objective will help keep everyone focused. Process advances are celebrated, as well as individual and team efforts being recognized. Obstacles to improvement should be the focus of leadership time and resources. Individual reticence to comply with the change that was initially agreed upon will meet with a listening ear, and appropriate consequences.
Be prepared for muddling
In any significant change from current outcomes to desired outcomes there is a mid stage in which performance deteriorates. When a baseball slugger sets out to improve his batting average he must move beyond the comfortable approach to the plate that produced his current stats. His hitting coach will review the data, and impose adjustments to stance, timing, and even equipment, that will make the player feel awkward. Initially performance will decrease. This muddling is overcome with practice and success as the new mechanics of the swing gain muscle memory, and will be reinforced the first time it delivers a new level of success. Like the batter’s experience all change efforts involve a farewell to an old comfortable way of doing things, and a dip in performance as we prepare for the advances of doing it by new and improved methods. Most of us anticipate a straight line of improvement between current and future state. This expectation leads to doubt and discouragement during the process. Muddling is a natural part of a lasting change, prepare to muddle.
Build change to last
The personalities of most businesses are influenced by their market and their ownership. Companies built by entrepreneurs are marked by a passion for building new systems and processes, as well as an aversion to the boring job of maintaining them. The steps outlined above will allow even the most distracted among us to build the discipline required to sustain change into the initiative from the start. With repeated wins based on these steps a culture of continuous and lasting change can be built.