Leading change

April 17, 2006
Leaders need to create and sustain continuous path without upsetting his employees. Learn how to clear a solid path and have the workforce follow you to great heights.

Continuous change is not optional for companies that want to survive in the global market that all industries face today. Just sustaining status quo is an almost guaranteed course to failure, but how do you create and sustain continuous change? Here are some proven ideas that will improve your chance of success.

A sense of urgency: With the possible exception of companies operating at a severe loss, the first hurdle to overcome is convincing the workforce that there’s a real need for change. This isn’t simply a problem of hourly workers’ failure to understand the need for change; too many managers, even at the highest level, suffer from this problem. The old adage that profit hides inefficiency and ineffectiveness is alive and well. No one in a profitable company, even when the profit is marginal, ever asks how much profit we’re leaving on the table. Instead, they ignore complacency and inefficiency.

To overcome complacency, senior management must instill a sense of urgency throughout the workforce. In extreme cases, management may have to foment a crisis just to get the workforce involved and focused on improvement.

A guiding coalition: Continuous improvement or change must be led from the top of an organization, implemented from the bottom and involve the entire workforce. The primary keys to success are finding the natural leaders in the company and harnessing their strengths to help you propagate the change effort. Finding the right people is critical and the search shouldn’t be hampered by emotions, titles or position.

Cross-functional teams that include every organizational level are a proven recipe for forming the coalitions that are essential for long-term success. Each team should include the stakeholders directly involved in the focus area, as well as those who influence or are influenced by the focus area.

Develop a vision: Senior management must provide a clear, concise vision of the future. The focus team concept can resolve the details of what and how to implement and sustain change, but they must have a clear vision of what the future should look like. Without a clear vision, each of the focus teams will create solutions for their focus area, but the composite results of all focus teams may not lead the company to improved profitability.

Communicate the vision: Senior management must sell its vision by continually communicating and reinforcing the future desired state. In too many cases, developing a vision or mission statement is only a short-term process. Senior management or a cross-functional team of stakeholders will spend a few days or a few months developing a statement, but once developed the vision isn’t pursued.

Empower the employees: Change can’t be dictated; it must evolve through a combined workforce effort. To be successful, senior management must empower the workforce. Give them the responsibility and authority to determine what needs to be changed and how those changes should be implemented. The final step in the empowerment process is for senior management to hold the employees accountable for success.

Short-term wins: Sustaining the concentration level and the effort required to implement positive change is difficult. The workforce loses momentum and interest unless it gets some indication the extra work generates the desired results. Senior management must ensure that objectives, goals and targets are constructed in a way that produces clearly visible, measurable, short-term gains. Stretch the workforce, but ensure that the stretch remains within achievable limits.

Breaking old habits and engendering an environment conducive to continuous improvement is neither easy nor quick. My final word of advice is to follow through. The dynamics of change are well-defined and should be your guide. It takes between 18 months and 24 months of focused effort to change a company’s culture. If you become distracted, too busy or remove the pressure to change before this interval passes, the workforce will revert to its natural state: its old way of doing things.

Change dynamics also show that at least 28% of the workforce must be directly and actively involved in the change process to ensure success. If this critical mass become advocates of the process, it will expand the process throughout the workforce. Successful continuous change is possible, but it’s an evolutionary process that takes time and your focused effort. Always remember old habits, even yours, are hard to break. Think positive, it can be done.

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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