Change is a Personal Choice

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering
As appeared in Reflections on Excellence

Last week I attended a workshop on change management—even old dogs can learn new tricks, or at least renew old lessons. One of the first topics discussed was how you change the work culture in a plant or company. As you can imagine, the discussion quickly migrated to organizational behavior, getting people involved and tipping point. All of the more popular theories were espoused in great detail but everyone immediately fixated on the mechanics of getting everyone involved in the change process by creating cross-functional teams, building a change infrastructure comprised of natural leaders and change management professionals, and a variety of other methodologies designed to get as many people as possible involved in the mechanics of change management.

As I listened to these discussions, at times quite passionate, my mind—as it tends to do more and more often lately—wandered off to what change really means. Thinking back, I thought about all of the transformations and their requisite culture changes in which I have participated over almost five decades. Some succeeded and some failed. What made the difference?

To be effective, change must be at the individual level. Each member of the workforce—no matter how significant their role—must choose to change the way they think and behave before the work culture can change. Change is a very personal thing and all culture change must start with one individual and continue until all individuals within the culture you are trying to change have made that personal decision to change. Impossible? No, it is quite possible. Let me give two simple examples.

First, every major religion began with one individual who had a vision, passion and an absolute commitment to a set of values and beliefs. That individual shared this unique vision with others who chose to become disciples and then helped others choose to embrace their shared vision. From this simple beginning, hundreds of millions of people share the same vision, passion and commitment to these religions—but in each religion it started with one individual who made a decision—a personal choice—to embrace certain values as a way of life.

If you want further proof, look to Japan, which grew rapidly from a devastated country to become one of the world’s manufacturing leaders. This remarkable transformation began with a few visionaries, like Dr. Edwards Deming, Philip Crosby, and later, James Womack, who were able to share their visions of effective manufacturing and management with the people who would become the leaders of today’s leading Japanese companies. These three men, and a few others, were able to help hundreds of thousands share a common vision and strive together as a team to become successful.

A more mundane example is a plant transformation that we led over a decade ago. The plant, an integrated steel mill consisting of more than 20,000 employees, had a culture that had passed on management responsibilities to successive generations of family members. Combine that culture with 13 unions and an almost total lack of standard processes and procedures and you have a guaranteed formula for failure. As you would expect, this plant was losing money—more than $150 million annually—as well as key customers because of quality and late delivery issues. Even the Japanese experts, who spent six months evaluating the plant, thought this plant was beyond hope and should be shut down. In everyone’s view this was a hopeless cause. Within three years, this hopeless plant was profitable, had been certified as a preferred vendor by its major customers and was well on its way to success. What changed? 

The simple answer is that 20,000 employees made a personal choice to embrace new ideas, to work together as a team to make the plant successful. Of course it wasn’t quite that simple. It was imperative that all employees change their thought and action patterns, but we never lost sight of the simple fact that each employee had to make a personal choice to embrace the changes and to join the team effort to succeed. Starting with a few select disciples including executives and plant floor employees, we were able to help a core group see the vision, the opportunities and the possibilities that the plant could enjoy. They chose to embrace the vision and pursue the dream. Through them, more and more of the employees were able to embrace the vision until all 20,000 were unified into a team that could not be dissuaded. This team reversed the financial losses and created a plant that anyone could be proud of. Today, more than a decade later, this plant is still presenting papers at trade conferences touting their drive for continuous improvement—their constant search for perfection.

My wife of 47 years always includes a scripture or quote as part of her signature block on emails and correspondence. Her most recent quote rings true to this discussion. It is one of Edmund Burke’s better comments, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” In the context of change management, think about what Burke is saying. If change is dependent on one individual making a choice to do something different, then is he right? Is our greatest failure the failure to take that first step toward change—because we can only do so little? 

To quote one of my heroes—Yoda from Star Wars—who, when asked, “Can one ray of light change the universe?” responded “It depends on who is holding it.” Each of us can make a difference, we can change our culture, our society, our world—but first we must change ourselves and be willing to exhibit our passion and commitment to change. Being the prophet of change can be career limiting—not all will view it as a good thing. But once you have made the decision to be a change leader it becomes a straightforward, constant process. All you need to do is help a few of your coworkers or members of your group share the same vision and passion; for change that you feel; they in turn will help others and before you know it, change will happen. It’s not instant gratification. Change will take time, but with perseverance and commitment all things are possible.

In the beginning of this letter, I started talking about the tools and methodologies of change and I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression. A process, complete with tools and guidelines, is essential for effective and sustainable cultural change. I would not attempt any substantive change without my toolbox. My warning, if it is a warning, is to never lose focus on the simple fact that each individual within the culture you are attempting to change must make a personal decision to either ignore or embrace the proposed change or changes. Keep your focus and change will happen. Become enamored with the tools, audits, and pretty graphs and you are destined to fail.

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s letter. Hopefully, it has raised a few thoughts that will help you take the next step in your journey to excellence. I welcome your feedback and am happy to respond to specific questions. You can reach me at [email protected].

Best regards,

R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

“Change is a personal choice and must be implemented one person at a time.”

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Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

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