You Cannot Mandate Change

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering

Over much of my career, discussions centering on how to change the work culture—viewed to be one of the roots of poor performance—have been frequent and often quite heated. It seems everyone has an opinion or favored methodology to get the workforce to adopt new policies or work practices. These methods vary depending on the organizational level and background of the individual.

Senior executives tend to believe that they can mandate change. All that is needed is to tell the workforce what they must do to comply with changes developed solely by a core group of the management team and then hold the workers accountable for success. They point to Hoshin Kanri, a favored Japanese management concept, which is interpreted as an executive-developed policy deployment process. Hoshin Kanri does establish a discipline that helps an organization create and focus on shared goals, effectively communicate these goals to all leaders, involve all leaders in the planning, and hold participants accountable for achieving their part of the plan.

I believe they are interpreting the word “leaders”. Leaders occur at all levels within the organization, not just in the rarified strata of the executive wing. There are two primary reasons that factory level leaders—including hourly and salaried employees—must be involved in the change process. First, only those on the factory floor have a true, practical understanding of factors that limit their ability to be effective and efficient. This practical knowledge of factory-floor limiting factors is inversely proportional to one’s position on the corporate ladder. As you climb the corporate ladder, your first-hand knowledge diminishes until you rely solely on reports and communications that often distort fact.

Others believe that change is a straightforward, tactical exercise. All one must do is make the workforce aware of the change, create a desire to change, have the workforce exhibit its ability to make the change and then everything will be better. If you believe their logic, creating awareness is simply a matter of one-way communication. Again, management communicates that change is coming and the employee’s role in the change. Sometimes, this communication will include management’s reason for the change—in the better attempts they try to couch the reasons in terms the employee can relate to or at least understand—in others it is just deployment communications.

If you are not too far removed from your days on the factory floor or a true member of the workforce, try to remember what it was like to be on the receiving end of these mandated changes. How did you like being told that you must change the way to think, the way your work is to be performed, and how your worth would be measured? Couple this with your experience with all of the previous changes that invariably led to workforce reductions, expansion of workload and a myriad of other negative impacts on your work life. What do you think—will mandated change really change anything?

Over my career, I have tried or been involved in every possible approach of effecting sustainable cultural change. Most of these early attempts, patterned after my interpretation of popular methodology, failed. While we could create short-term improvement and gain the appearance of change, the workforce would revert to its old habits as soon as management pressure was removed. As we progressed, we tried everything from threats to incentives to get the workforce to accept the changes that we as management thought necessary to meet business goals. Nothing seemed to gain traction with the workforce.

Three epiphanies, one quickly following the other, finally showed the way to successful change:

Identify true attributes of change:
When I looked back at the changes we had attempted, it became clear that too often we were attempting to change the wrong things. We were trying to fix systemic or infrastructural problems by forcing cost reductions, elimination of overtime and other cosmetic changes that did little other than alienate the workforce. I remember sitting in a leadership team meeting years ago. Around the table sat 21 vice presidents discussing a reduction in the hourly workforce. Business had not been good and we were falling below our business goals. The obvious solution was to reduce the hourly workforce to compensate—right? At that point in my career, I was responsible for the manufacturing organization and knew we could not meet demand with the reduced workforce that was being suggested. As an alternative, I suggested that three of us—the vice presidents—resign instead of cutting the workforce. Eliminating three vice presidents would have the same impact on our bottom line and still support our ability to meet customer demand. What do you think happened?

Involve the workforce and natural leaders: My second epiphany was if I cannot get the workforce to accept and adopt management’s view of needed change, let them develop it. Think for one minute. When you have an idea, it is in your view logical and totally viable; but when you hear or read someone else’s idea you can quickly see flaws and faults that need changing. That’s simply human nature. Why not leverage this trait and eliminate the resistance by letting the workforce develop and create the changes needed to eliminate waste and improve effectiveness. The use of cross-functional teams comprised of stakeholders in the change and at all levels of the organization has proven to be highly effective. Leveraging natural work teams and leaders—at all levels of the organization—empowers the change process and is essential to sustainability.

The workforce encompasses the entire organization: The third epiphany changed my focus from downward to the factory floor. One reason for these early failures was that we ignored required changes in the executive, senior and middle level management strata of the organization. One fallacy of management-created change is that we tend to overlook the deficiencies within our own span of control. It’s simply too easy to fixate on the perceived weaknesses in the execution of the production and maintenance functions and not see that they are the result of policies that we created.

One thing that I have learned is that change is not easy, but it is not as hard as we too often make it. You can fight the workforce and try to force them to adopt your view of change or you can lead them through the process of recognizing the need for change, defining how they can best effect the needed change and finally enable them to succeed. Change can be easy—if you just let it be. Use your workforce. Let them make you a hero.

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 cannot be mandated; the workforce must acknowledge the need,
create the means and embrace the changes”

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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