Change – the Final Frontier (with apologies to Star Trek)

Change management

I have had the privilege of working at some exceptional companies – companies that aspired to be the best, and were willing to make the effort to do this – and in every case this required change. Change is hard. Honestly the mechanics of Lean transformation are easy in comparison. Human nature is such that we think that change is absolutely required – for other people. Inevitably we think we are OK. Take a look at the webinar on this site, but in this article and some future articles, I will try to summarize some of the key things I have learned in 40ish years of trying to be a change agent. 

First, look in the mirror, and be prepared to “walk the talk”. If you aspire to be a change agent, your every action, every word, every gesture, every expression will be examined, parsed, and discussed. Simply, can you be trusted? Are your motivations positive? Do you care about the people involved, or simply the results? Are your actions consistent with your message? 

Alignment with the boss and peers is essential. Regarding alignment with the boss, it is critical to make sure that pace of change, scope of change and expected results are agreed upon. Regarding peers, especially at higher levels in the organization, people may interpret change as a “power play” and this triggers defense mechanisms – if it is clear that the primary focus of the changes is to improve your activity, most peers will be very supportive.

You will get nowhere without team alignment – and books have been written about this subject alone. Diversity in a team is obviously positive – but people that are negative by nature, or who struggle with change, can completely derail any change initiative. Engaging the team to help create and implement the change program as well as pace the change program is essential – I have never seen any change program succeed that was simply imposed from above. Take some time here, and make sure everyone is aligned on the “why” and “how to” of what is being changed – not just the what. Your direct team is the first line of defense against the organization antibodies that will materialize to try to kill change – they have to be well trained and true believers. If they are not capable of this, you need some new team members.

Once you have clarified the what, the why, and the how to of change, the next step is to relentlessly engage the organization at every level. The top of the organization is engaged to provide support and to ensure alignment – the middle of any organization is trained to lock up if any misalignment is perceived at higher levels until the misalignment is resolved (a completely understandable defense mechanism). Communication sideways to peer groups and adjacent disciplines is needed to provide a healthy and supportive environment for change. Especially if they can understand the change is directed at improving the group you lead most peer groups will be supportive. After the change is rolled out to the organization and a reasonable amount of time for communication has passed I recommend going directly to the working level to see if the message has been received and the change is real. In many cases I have encountered no communication whatsoever thru the middle management to the working level – yet if you talk to the middle management there are great PowerPoint presentations on how the change is wonderful. If there has been a communication problem from middle management to the working level, the next step is clearly to address the middle management.  Be patient here – in most cases the behavior that middle management learned was rewarded in the past. Obviously new expectations need to be set – once this is done most people can change their behavior. 

Go to the Gemba. Many change programs fail in a flurry of positive PowerPoint presentations, as mentioned above, while the working level folks laugh at another “initiative of the week”. This is completely avoidable, but requires relentless examination of behaviors, work process and output at a granular level. This is tough, and I will devote a follow-up article to this subject. 

Pilot programs are an excellent way to implement change – in an organization of any size it is quite risky to NOT implement change using a pilot program. Pilot programs allow you to “hand pick” a high performing team who is ambitious, open to change, and wants to “make their mark”. It allows intensive coaching and monitoring of this team thru the initial change. It allows a cycle of “Check” and “Adjust” before the change is rolled out to the broader organization. Time pressure is virtually the only reason to implement a change without a pilot program, but in almost all cases I have seen that this is a false choice – without a pilot the change is so messed up that it either fails entirely or take far longer than a change implemented with a pilot program.

Pilot programs set you up well to recognize and reward the early adapters, and create a positive culture for change. Recognizing the teams and people that have embraced change and delivered results is essential for a sustainable change effort. It is a great idea to have the pilot teams describe the “what”, the “why” and the “how to” of what was accomplished to the entire organization, and management needs to emphasize that recognition and rewards are because of the positive team behavior and the use of the methodology, not just achievement of results.

Finally, it is really important to balance empathy and strength of will. Inevitably people will resist change – and it is critical to understand their legitimate concerns and address them. It is important to be patient and listen. To a point. There is always a point where the change agent has to smile, express empathy, and then order/ encourage/ take the next step to actually make the change.

The ”checklist” of items to consider for change listed above applies well in most types of situations requiring change – strategic or short term, large scale or small. I accumulated it over many years, and have used it in multiple situations. One of the more exciting ones was documented in “The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement” by Franz and Liker when I led transformation of a Fortune 100 company’s product development activity from traditional to Lean PD. Every element of change management above was emphasized multiple times. For example, for communication a monthly newsletter was created and articles were contributed by Lean experts as well as leaders of pilot programs that had tried new methodology and experienced success. A dedicated Lean coach was put into place as a resource to provide expertise and help for multiple pilot programs and initiatives. Engagement with the organization happened in many workshops, venues and meetings. Even with this, it was clear that the organization was resisting the changes and that many were satisfied with the status quo.

Too many people were working as individual performers, doing things “their way” with spotty and unpredictable results (and we had poor results and were horribly disappointing customers). I knew I had to do something differently and make my case for change. In a memorable “all hands” meeting, we started the meeting by playing a scene from “A miracle on ice” – the story of the US Olympic hockey team that beat the Russians against all odds in 1980. In the scene the head coach after a preliminary loss is furious that his team is acting as individual stars, not a team. He literally drills them with wind sprints until they throw up, until the hockey rink is closed down, until they cannot drill any longer – and this is the turning point in the movie where they start to consider themselves as a team. We played the scene without comment, then the team explained the current situation in some detail – customer satisfaction, cost, quality, budget. Frankly, it was a sad picture. We then celebrated some early wins and recognized some successful pilot teams. As people left we played the scene from “A miracle on ice” where the team (now acting as a true team) wins against the Russians. I am pretty sure that there has never been an “all hands” meeting like that before or since, but I am happy to say that we successfully made profound changes, business results improved, and that the vast majority of people successfully made the change. I think that at the right time an “in your face” kind of event can help break people out of their “status quo” thinking. 

In the end there is no perfect roadmap, and each change program needs to be created for your particular situation. It is tough, and inevitably everyone will tell you how you could have done it better, or what mistakes were made. In my opinion, however, successfully making a positive and meaningful change to an enterprise is perhaps the most satisfying thing a person can do, which is why change remains:

The Final Frontier.

Watch Charlie Baker’s webinar on how to change mindsets in Fortune 500 companies:


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