Is effective change management really this simple?

June 19, 2006
Change management should involve questioning those closest to the situation to determine the best plan for solving the problem. Then all management has to do is implement the recommendations. Is it really this simple?

I’ve spent my adult life transforming dysfunctional organizations into entities that achieve and sustain their full potential. And I’m consistently amazed at the failure of corporate America to recognize the simple fact that management can’t mandate change.

Recently, I sat in on a meeting and watched the typical management approach to change management. Here was a conference room filled with managers, ranging from front line supervisors to the area manager. The meeting’s intent was to resolve a chronic problem that was reducing the annual output of the facility by millions of units. As the meeting started, the managers began a discussion of the problem and offered their solutions. The common theme was “we don’t have enough maintenance technicians to respond to problems during startup of the facility’s production systems.”

The discussion lasted for more than two hours without any clear resolution of the problem. Each person at the table was directed to develop their recommendations for resolving the problem and to present these solutions at the next meeting.

What’s wrong with this approach? First, no one in the room had first hand knowledge of the problem. While a few are on-shift during the startup process, none are directly involved in the process. In fact, few, if any, are even on the floor during startup. Second, none are qualified as operators or maintenance technicians. They have, at best, second-hand knowledge of the symptoms and no knowledge of the root causes of the reasons that the plant can’t achieve consistent startups. As a result, the problems continue and aren’t likely to be resolved.

We had the opportunity to resolve the startup problem for them. Our success was based on a different approach. We asked the operators and maintenance technicians who performed the startups to solve the problem. Their first-hand knowledge of the symptoms led directly to the root cause, which was failure to follow best practices during the shutdown, cleaning and startup of the production systems. All that management had to do was implement the recommendations from the plant floor workforce and the problem was permanently resolved.

Take this simple example and expand it to correcting overall plant performance problems. Managers, no matter their level, lack the first-hand knowledge required to transform dysfunctional plant cultures into sustainable world-class performers. The required knowledge resides in the hourly workforce and it’s the hourly workforce who can identify the limiting factors and corrective actions needed to remedy the situation. In addition, the workforce must accept and embrace change before any positive results can be achieved.

Ideally, you should involve the entire hourly workforce in identifying deficiencies and recommending solutions, but this isn’t practical. Someone must continue the production process that generates the revenue. The proven methodology that gains the requisite workforce knowledge and continues the revenue stream is a cross-functional stakeholder team formed from the hourly and salaried personnel that represents the entire workforce.

Charge these teams with the responsibility and authority to obliterate barriers that limit plant performance. Let the rest of the workforce vet the conclusions and recommendations before the team presents them to senior management for implementation.

Employee involvement is critical to the process. At least 28% of the workforce must be involved in development of new processes and modes of operation to generate the momentum needed for sustainable change. Giving every employee a voice in these new processes makes for successful implementation. The reason is simple. If they don’t feel a sense of ownership in the program or process, it can’t be good and won’t be embraced.

Management has the easy part in transformation, but it’s nonetheless critical. Management, especially senior management, must actively lead change. As a minimum, they must provide visible support for the need for change and give true authority to the cross-functional teams that will determine the company’s future. While this sounds easy, few managers are willing to cede their perceived authority and control. As a result, they’re reluctant to give the teams the freedom needed to be effective.

Management’s final responsibility is to implement the teams’ recommendations, without editorial comments or modifications. Any attempt to modify these recommendations, no matter what the perceived reason, will limit the benefits that the focus team process could provide.

If your company is failing to achieve its full potential, let the people who really understand the problem solve it. Get your workforce involved. You’ll like the results.

Contributing Editor R. Keith Mobley, CMRP, is principal consultant at Life Cycle Engineering in Charleston, S.C. E-mail him at [email protected].

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