See change from workers' perspectives

Feb. 15, 2012
Tom Moriarty explains how the nature of strategic projects is going to change.

Strategic projects often change in big ways. An example would be that a particular plant has a systemic problem in which customer deliveries have been affected and market share is being lost at an alarming rate. Most people, whether management or workforce personnel, understand these compelling reasons for change.

Major initiatives often are accompanied by a lot of fanfare. There’s optimism that by engaging in this improvement effort the company will see excellent improvements in its performance. That sounds great for the shareholders and corporate types interested in profitability.

But what does this mean to the people working on the plant floor? When organizational efficiency improves, isn’t that another way of saying the plant will do the same or more work with fewer people? Do they know what will be happening when the changes take effect? Have you told them?

The further down the organization chart you go, the greater the gap in certainty about outcomes. Anxiety comes from uncertainty. Uncertainty increases if the senior management hasn’t made clear what will happen as a result of greater efficiency. Develop a projected outcome to outline what the final state will look like. Identify the positions that will be created or eliminated. Have a plan for how the organization will fill new positions such as planners, schedulers, and kitters or when there will be adjustments to trade skills so you don’t end up with too many outside machinists and not enough instrumentation techs. Will retirement attrition be used, or will there be inducements to get people to leave voluntarily? If there are shortages in some trades, will surplus trades be offered cross-training?

Uncertainty-induced anxiety can distract workers, making them much more susceptible to accidents and injuries. Workers who are concerned about their future also tend to have much lower morale, resulting in an increase in sick days and grievances. Both result in more waste and higher operating costs.


Employees will be much less anxious if they have a clear understanding of what is coming. Fear of the unknown can be crippling. Being distracted, or being among other distracted workers, can increase the likelihood of safety problems. Anxiety can cause personal health issues and enormous stress in one’s home life, as well.

Human nature being what it is, people tend to gravitate toward the negatives; people wonder if they will be let go. In some organizations, there’s constant tension and lack of trust between management and labor. In this environment, uncertainty and anxiety are more acute. It’s difficult to count on labor’s support in making the strategic changes under low-trust scenarios.

Senior leaders must consider the situation from the worker’s perspective. If efficiency frees up labor, how will the “found labor” be handled? Enlightened organizations realize that found labor is an opportunity to drive performance even further. As an example, think about your operations and maintenance functions. Is your organization primarily reactive? Being reactive is inefficient.

About 50% of organizations are reactive in nature. Another 25% are doing a fair to good job at planning and scheduling work (control and stability realm), but they don’t do enough to optimize performance. Beyond the control and stability realm are the 15% of organizations that have a well-developed proactive reliability culture (proactive reliability realm). The other 10% either are very poor performing (worse than reactive) or very high performing (best of the best).

If you’re a reactive organization, an excellent investment would be getting control and stability in your work management processes. If you’re already in the control and stability realm, the next place to invest found labor is in continuous improvement through proactive reliability.

How would such investments affect the workforce? If you’re a craftsmen or operator affected by the strategic change initiative, learn as much as you can about the projected outcome. Try to understand what the opportunities will be. What new skills will the end state need? What positions will be opening up? Can you make yourself competitive for those opportunities by being positive about the changes and asking for opportunities to learn more?

When putting strategic improvement initiatives in place, consider not just the results, but what those results will mean to people who are in the organization.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, is president of Alidade MER. Contact him at [email protected] and (321) 773-3356.

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