Workforce Development / Change Management / Leadership Skills

Make change happen, and make it stick

Establish clear responsibilities and accountability and build up incremental wins to set the stage for lasting change.

By Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, Alidade MER

In this article:

Contrary to what some consultants espouse, culture cannot change instantaneously, or simply because a Lean, Six Sigma, or other initiative has been implemented. If culture changes at all because of an initiative, progress will likely backslide; this likely will be followed by another round of culture-change initiatives by another consulting firm five years later. For culture to truly change, it must transition over time through the structures, systems, and readiness of the workforce. 

If you’ve attended any of my Productive Leadership workshops or read my new book, “The Productive Leadership System: Maximizing Organizational Reliability,” you will recognize these statements:

  • Culture is what most people do, most of the time.
  • What people do are behaviors.
  • To create the right culture, you have to create the right behaviors.
  • The right behaviors performed consistently will create the right habits.
  • The right habits performed by a majority of people becomes the right culture.

Let’s assume that none of that is news to you. For an organization to be enabled to transition its culture, accountability is essential. A standard set of activity categories must be defined. Individual leaders must be assigned accountability and also must have the knowledge and skills to carry out those activities.  
In many organizations, people at all levels resist change because of past experiences. To transition culture in a positive direction, you must create new experiences that will increase readiness to participate in future improvement activities. When enough people become enthusiastic, the organization can leverage accountability, structures and systems.

In this article I’ll explain how accountability, the Organizational Reliability Model, and the Productive Leadership Model can be used to change the structures and systems and how proactive improvement teams can be used to create positive new experiences to increases acceptance of change.

Accountability


Organizations should have organizational structures and asset management systems that define activities which are to be performed. For each activity, there must be one person (and only one person) who is accountable for ensuring that the activity is carried out correctly.

If activities are not defined or no one is assigned accountability for an activity, then people will act in their own self-interest. All organizations have some people who are accountable. That’s why you’ll see groups within organizations that have an identity or culture of strong performance and others that do not.

Sometimes when an accountable person leaves the group, the group’s performance deteriorates. That simply means the culture of accountability is not pervasive. If an organization or suborganization doesn’t currently have sufficient accountability, how do you get it? Create and maintain an organizational structure and an asset management system to assign accountability to individual positions.

Organizational structure means having a leadership hierarchy; a senior to subordinate relationship must exist between each level of leadership. A senior person must have the authority to require compliance with direction and guidance from subordinates. Subordinates must be accountable to execute guidance with assets they are provided.  Overt assignment of accountability leaves no doubt about who has succeeded or failed.

An asset management system is used to define activities and assign accountability for those activities. Activities fall into two realms:

  1. The senior person is accountable for assessing, defining, authorizing, and implementing changes in guidance and assets, and,
  2. The subordinate is accountable for executing: applying guidance and assets to convert inputs into outputs.

The Organizational Reliability Model


The Organizational Reliability Model is an asset management system used to identify activities and to associate the accountabilities for activities. Most large organizations have five to seven levels or leadership, and even very small organizations have at least two levels. Each person in an organization is assigned a position within the organization’s structure.

Among adjacent levels of leadership, senior/subordinate relationships are binary. For example, a maintenance manager is senior to subordinate maintenance supervisors. But the maintenance manager is a subordinate to the senior the plant manager. 

Figure 1 shows the Organizational Reliability Model. It applies to the senior and subordinate persons across adjacent leadership levels. The top portion of the model is called the proactive improvement realm. The bottom portion is called the control and stability realm.

In the proactive improvement realm, strengths and weaknesses from internal activities and opportunities and threats from outside the senior person’s sphere of influence are assessed against the organization’s mission, vision, values and objectives. Solutions are then defined, authorized (or not), and implemented. In essence, the senior person determines the requirements and provides what’s needed for carrying them out. The senior person is then accountable for these:

  • The assessment of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOTs) is done based on mission, vision, values, and objectives.
  • A preliminary solution is defined and evaluated based on cost, risk, and value.
  • Beneficial changes are authorized for implementation; others are not authorized.
  • Implementation is putting authorized changes into practice: Policies, plans, processes, procedures, measures and assets are created/obtained and provided. The change is driven to common practice.

In the control and stability realm, the subordinate person is accountable for using the implemented guidance and assets (including inputs such as raw materials, contractors, utilities, etc.) to execute and to create output products or services. Being accountable means the subordinate person is answerable to perform to the level of guidance and assets they have been provided, and to notify their senior person when guidance and assets (including inputs) are deficient.

Deficiencies communicated to the senior person can occur in several ways; for example:

  • Guidance was not initially developed correctly so the guidance or assets requirements were not accurate (senior person accountability).
  • Guidance and assets were developed and provided correctly, but guidance was not updated with SWOT changes (senior person accountability).
  • Assets were initially provided but have been depleted and not restored; such as when employee turnover results in open positions. (This can be a subordinate person’s accountability for not communicating the deficiency or a senior person’s accountability for not adjusting guidance or assets to address the situation.)

An Organizational Reliability Model is a means to assign accountability, to leverage the organizational structure, and to create the systems needed. The next issue is ensuring individual leaders have the knowledge and skills they need to be effective.

The productive leadership model


Figure 2 shows the Productive Leadership Model. Note that there are four black boxes. These emphasize the required support subordinates need. Subordinates need clear direction (mission, vision, values and objectives). They also need clear guidance (policies, plans, processes, procedures and measures) and the assets, or resources, to carry out the guidance.

With those enabling elements in place a subordinate person can be expected to execute. Subordinate leaders must:

  • Understand the importance and assignment of accountability, direction and requirements.
  • Want responsibility to execute.
  • Have knowledge and skills in leadership roles, attributes and skills.
    • Roles are the five categories of activities in which leaders spend their time including expert/technician, manager/administrator, coach, systems thinker and visionary.
    • Leadership attributes are the five characteristics of how leaders should interact with others; consistent, attentive, respectful, motivational and assertive.
  • Leadership skills are the five basic tools leaders need: time management, communication, empowerment, giving/receiving of feedback, and conflict resolution.
  • Understand and properly use sources of power.
  • Position power is linked with the position the leader is assigned.
  • Personal power is earned by how the leader interacts with others.
  • Use appropriate means to influence others by creating and leveraging motivation.
  • Create goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely (SMART).

Individual leaders need to understand more than just leadership skills. There should be a leadership development program that enhances productive leadership of current leaders and creates a leadership pipeline by developing prospective leaders.

How do you start transitioning the culture?


Most efforts to implement culture change are like pushing on a rope. This is where leaders spend a lot of time and money on training and town-hall meetings to implore their team members to buy-into some model. Groups within the organization view this as coming from outside.

Outside initiatives are sort of like an infection that enters the body. An infection in a human body is attacked by white blood cells that try to kill off the infection. Those white blood cells are generated from past experiences.

Productive leaders find ways to make people accept or even embrace change. These leaders are more like a centrifugal pump. Centrifugal pumps create a low-pressure area. Fluid flows into the low-pressure area creating momentum within the fluid. How do you create the low-pressure area?

Leaders drive acceptance and enthusiasm by showing team members that their opinions and abilities are valued. Productive leaders use proactive improvement teams to do this. Figure 3 shows the elements for a proactive improvement projects. The guidelines for proactive improvement projects are:

  1. Important – There is an important issue that, if addressed, will improve organizational performance and increase enthusiasm. It could be an onerous policy, a process that has ambiguities, gaps or overlaps, or perhaps a need for a better tool or software application.
  2. Quick results – The improvement must be achievable in a short time frame –no more than two months. Larger projects can be divided into subprojects to ensure progress is made within the limited time frame.
  3. Articulated goal – The improvement must have a SMART goal: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and in a stated time frame.
  4. Motivated – The project team members must feel ready, willing, and able to accomplish the project.
  5. Achievable – The project must be achieved with the currently available resources and authority.
  6. One accountable person – One person must be identified as the person accountable for completing the project.

The approach is to have subordinate persons identify and solve problems. They can use tools such as Lean, Six Sigma, root-cause analysis, etc. Proactive-improvement teams should be empowered to select their own issues, so long as the improvement can be linked to the organization’s mission, vision, values, and objectives and the project leads to improvements. The senior leader must monitor team members time so that day-to-day responsibilities are not neglected.

Here are recommendations to foster effective proactive improvement projects:

  • Look for people who are passionate about an improvement. People who are bothered by the status quo will be more energized to solve problems. Supplement them with experts on issues related to the task. That may mean asking for participation from other departments, functions, or work centers.
  • Don’t always select the same handful of people for projects. We tend to wear out the top performers. Look to include more and more people on improvement projects. Remember, the goal is to increase enthusiasm. Broadening the circle of people who have participated and that have had positive experiences is the surest way to increase enthusiasm.
  • One person needs to be identified as the person that is accountable for the project. When there’s no one person accountable it’s too easy to deflect blame and rationalize failed projects. Single points of accountability also support the overall goal of assigning accountability for activities.
  • The accountable person must be steadfast in making sure the articulated goal is achieved. This is why SMART goals need to be stated. Let the proactive-improvement team come up with the goal, but make sure it is stated and that the accountable person keeps the pressure on to accomplish the goal.
  • If the improvement team comes up with a goal that is believed to be too low, the senior person should accept it. This lowers the stress of potential failure and risk. Most of the time the team will exceed its own goals. Remember, the objective is an increase in positive experiences.
  • Require teams to plan and schedule the team’s activities. Write down the subtasks, who is responsible for them, how much time will be allocated and what is to be accomplished, at a minimum. This ensures that the senior person can understand the time commitment, authorize the resources required, and monitor progress.
  • If the improvement is broad-based, complex, or may have unintended consequences, the accountable senior person should consider a pilot or test implementation. Testing the solution in a controlled manner will help identify issues that may have been overlooked and will get more people experienced with exercising the solution. Issues can be corrected before full rollout.
  • Give frequent positive feedback. Most senior persons give too much corrective or negative feedback and not enough positive feedback. People want to feel like winners. It costs nothing to give someone praise or positive feedback and it will encourage more of the same behaviors and performance.
  • Senior leaders have the opportunity to observe proactive-improvement team members. There may be some who display leadership potential. These may be candidates for future leadership positions. Improvement projects can be used to develop leadership potential.

When the culture is highly defensive or resistant, be less concerned with the scope and scale of improvement projects. The first several projects are likely to be very small – probably relating to something that has been causing the team members frustration. The objective is to increase positive experiences. A win is a win. When people see that their voices are heard and their recommendations are actually utilized, enthusiasm grows.

This is sort of like observing deer in the early morning. At the edge of woods by the corn field, you’ll see a doe cautiously step into the open. After a few moments, more does, yearlings and eventually the bucks come out. If the first couple of deer that enter the field are startled, you never get the chance to see the rest of them.

As the organic enthusiasm grows the organization’s culture will begin to change. Job satisfaction increases. People better understand how the organization functions. They feel more respected. Interactions with senior leaders and changes brought in from outside are less threatening. 

Summary


Accountability, organizational reliability, and productive leadership are the foundation on which organizations can thrive. Productive leaders need to know and apply leadership roles, attributes, skills, and sources of power. They use these to influence others to achieve goals.

Culture change is often ineffective when driven from outside because there’s no confidence in the system. Accountability, organizational reliability and productive leadership provide the structure and systems. The team members need positive experiences to increase enthusiasm by engaging people through proactive improvement projects.

The first several projects may be very modest as people test whether they will be heard and whether changes will actually be made. Work to include a widening circle of participants in improvement projects. It progressively grows the number of people that transition from low enthusiasm to high enthusiasm.

Also remember that culture is what most people do most of the time. What people do are behaviors. To transition the culture over time leaders, need to define the right behaviors. Behaviors performed consistently become habits. Habits performed by most of the people will become the culture. Once the ground has been tilled, the organization’s ability to transition and sustain the right culture will be greatly improved.