Blocker (noun) - Someone who purposefully opposes any change (improvement) to a process for personal reasons
“Blockers” can occupy any position in a company. They can be any age, gender, education level or pay rate. We tend to think of blockers as older, more experienced workers who have been with the company for a long time, and they don’t want to consider any other way to do things.
While that may be true in some cases, don’t be surprised to find blockers who are young, well-educated and fairly new to the company. One blocker I encountered was a human resources leader who was in her late 20s. We thought she would be the first to volunteer to lead an improvement team. Instead, she put up barriers at every step and finally decided to quit the company. In her exit interview, she said that she had hoped to retire with the company without having to deal with any changes or disruptions.
Sometimes blockers are obvious in their attempts to keep change from happening. Most of the time, however, they stay fairly well hidden and undermine the improvement activities until the effort fails, the team wanting to make the change gives up or the blocker gets out of the way. In my experience, it takes a lot of effort to get a blocker to buy into the improvement initiatives. They may decide instead to just try and “wait it out” and see how long they can go before being forced to comply or leave. If a blocker does eventually buy into the change, there is the possibility that they will become a positive advocate for the improvement. This requires training, mentoring and involvement in the improvement process so the blocker can get comfortable with and own the changes.
Blockers to improvement efforts have many reasons why they do not want things to change. For example, when launching a new lean/Six Sigma initiative, the blockers may simply not understand the tools and principles and are unwilling to admit that they don’t know (especially company leaders and certified Six Sigma belts who may not have worked on a project for several years). This is why I recommend to my clients that the entire company go through refresher training in order to make sure everyone is on the same page.
The following illustration is based on a true story and may shed some light on how much damage blockers can do to your company’s performance.
The Damage Blockers Do
Charlie leaned back in his chair and waited for his office phone to ring. He had a pile of paperwork stacked on his desk that grew taller every day. “I don’t have time for such meaningless tasks as filling out expense reports,” thought Charlie. “I have to be available at all times to save the plant, as usual.”
The area Charlie worked in was known as the “Armpit” of the plant. As a manufacturing engineer, he was responsible for keeping the plating line up and operational. It was a poorly lit, smelly, dirty area with puddles of unknown liquids on the floor. The plating line consisted of several tanks that contained various liquids. Polished, metal parts got loaded on to racks, and these racks were moved from tank to tank to first wash the parts and then plate them with different coatings such as brass and nickel.
The amount of rejected parts on this line was high, as was the amount of unplanned down time. In fact, the assembly line would shut down frequently throughout the week due to a lack of parts coming out of this area. The workers on the plating line could not remember the last time they had a day off since they had to work the weekends in order to fill the shelves so the assembly line would have something to work on the following week.
They Can't Get Along Without Me
Charlie continued to stare at his phone. “I wonder how this plant could possibly get along without me,” he thought. “Everyone knows that plating parts is an art form, and I am the only artist in this place. If it weren’t for me, the company would be bankrupt in a matter of weeks. I wonder what the workers on the line will screw up next. It is hard being the hero who has to keep things working.”
Charlie’s phone began to ring.
Later that day, Charlie got some disturbing news. His boss, who left him alone for the most part, decided to leave the company. He met his new boss, Scott, a couple of days later.
“Hey Charlie,” said his new boss. “I have heard a lot about you. I understand that you are in charge of keeping the equipment running in the plating area.”
“Yeah,” said Charlie. “The place would not run without me.”
“How much time would you say you spend putting out fires?” asked Scott.
“Well, since we constantly have problems, I am out on the floor keeping the line limping along most of the time.”
“Hmm… I would like you to start documenting the problems and fixes. In a couple of weeks, I would like to pull together a group of people from the plating area to start talking about ways we can begin reducing the number of problems.”
They Don't Know Anything!
“What?!? You want me to start writing stuff down? What a waste of time that will be. And why would you pull together a group of workers? They don’t know anything about plating. I am the only one around here who knows how to keep that line running. So, let ME focus on doing that and stay out of my way!”
Over the next several months, Scott attempted to get Charlie on board with the need to improve the process. Actually, Scott realized that the process was getting worse. The amount of rejected parts was steadily going up, and the plating line seemed to be shut down more than it was running. Scott decided to pair a newly hired engineer with Charlie to start looking for opportunities for improvement. Charlie did not take the news well.
“Look, I don’t have time to break in a newbie,” said Charlie. “In fact, I think the only reason you are doing this is to steal all of the information I have gathered since I got here. Well, everyone knows that knowledge is power, and I don’t plan on sharing. Let’s see how long you guys can survive without me. I quit! You better be ready to pay me a lot of money to come back when you see how things fall apart after I leave. And I expect to be left alone the next time!” Charlie stormed off to his office to gather his stuff.
“Who do we call now?” said one of the plating operators when Scott informed them of what happened. “We are doomed. Charlie was the only one who knew how to keep the line running.”
“We just hired a new engineer. Janet will start tomorrow. She does not have a lot of experience with plating parts, but she knows quite a bit about chemical processes. I am confident in her abilities, but she will need some time.”
The next couple of weeks were difficult for everyone in the Armpit. Since nothing had been documented, no one knew what to do when the line broke down. Janet was consumed with trying to fix the problems. She did not go home before midnight each night and began to wonder if she should have taken the job. Finally, things began to settle down a bit, and she had some time to pull the operators together.
“The first thing we need to focus on is cleaning this place up,” said Janet to the operators. “I don’t know how we have been able to pass OSHA inspections. We need to figure out how to change our reputation from being the Armpit to something a little classier.”
“I think all of the puddles on the floor are from cracks in the lining of the plating tanks,” said one of the operators. “We use to replace the linings on a regular schedule. I can’t recall the last time they were replaced.”
“Sounds like a good start,” said Janet. “I will also put in a request for new lights so we can see what we are doing.”
From the Armpit to Precision Finishing
Once the operators saw things begin to improve, they offered up more ideas. Many problems were uncovered and fixed. Over time, the quality and output of the plating line improved dramatically.
Two years later, Janet was giving a plant tour and had been bragging about the progress made in the plating area, now known as the “Precision Finishing” department. Just when she shared that their internal customer, the assembly area, had gone 14 months without a single shortage of plated parts, the plating line shut down.
“Aha!” said one of the visitors. “I figured you were over inflating the improvement numbers. It looks like your line shuts down as much as everyone else’s.”
“Oh, we still have problems. But watch what happens next,” said Janet.
The operators, along with maintenance, quickly huddled together to discuss why the line was down. Within 10 minutes, they discovered what happened and had a fix in place, and the line was back up and running.
“Wait,” said the visitor. “Are you telling me that the operators and maintenance now fix the problems when the line goes down? How is that possible?”
“We got the operators involved in fixing and documenting the process from the beginning. We even sent a few of them to school to learn how plating is done. The maintenance department assigned a full-time person who has done a great job of setting up a preventative maintenance plan and he makes sure we have all of the correct spare parts on hand. We even built a fully functioning lab on site so we could take chemical samples and track impurities, real time using the Six Sigma tools.”
“I can’t believe this,” said the visitor.
One of the operators noticed the tour and walked over. “Hey, look everybody,” said the operator. “Charlie is paying us a visit.”
Blockers. We have all encountered them at some point in our career. A lean leader recently shared with me that her company has saved over $2 million, yet a group of blockers is in the process of shutting down the lean initiatives. Her frustration is to the point that she is ready to leave the company.
So, business leaders need to ask themselves, do they want to coddle the blockers and run the risk of losing the people who actually want to help their business improve? Or will they put the time and effort into getting the blockers on board with the change? The first step to dealing with blockers is to identify the type.
Four Types of Blockers
Negative Blocker – This is one of the more obvious blocker types. They say things like “That idea will never work” or “We tried that 10 years ago, and it did not work then and it won’t work now.”
The best way to get the negative blocker on board is to set up a pilot project and try the idea on a small scale basis. Try to involve the blocker as much as possible and then if the idea works, let everyone know that the blocker was part of the success. This usually pumps up their ego a bit, and they are then more likely to become a supporter. Remember that the blocker may be correct, and the idea may not work. In that case, admit the problem, pull the team back together and solicit more ideas and start over.
Silent Blocker – These are the folks who don’t want to participate in an improvement initiative and will rarely say anything until there is a problem. “I knew this would not work” is a common phrase. The improvement leader will need to work hard to get the silent blocker to share their ideas and concerns. Try to find common interests to break the ice and when they do speak, be sure to follow up on their ideas and suggestions.
Agreeable Blocker – This can be one of the more difficult blockers to deal with. The agreeable blocker’s actions are far different from their words. In the team meeting, they enthusiastically embrace the improvement ideas but then do everything they can behind the scenes to slow or stop the changes. This is usually done for political reasons or due to fear that the wrong people will get credit. For example, a manager refused to allow an improvement idea to go forward because the savings would show up in a different department’s account, and he was afraid that a peer would get the credit.
One way to address this concern is to make sure that the entire company celebrates together when there are successes, and the savings are equally shared across all accounts.
Firefighting Blocker - Some blockers are created when company leaders reward firefighting. “You just saved the business by getting that line back up and running. You are a hero!” a company leader may say. This plants the seed that the only way to get noticed is to react to problems and implement a quick temporary fix. And then the only way to be sure that there will be fires to put out is to block any improvements.
Instead, the company leaders need to show this level of enthusiasm when a team comes up with a permanent fix or improvement to a process even though that may take weeks or months to implement.
In the book “Good to Great,” author Jim Collins writes about the importance of getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats. I have seen significant improvement initiatives stall because of one person in the company who does an excellent job of blocking any attempts to change.
Every effort should be made to try and understand why this person is behaving the way they are, address their issues, and provide a way to get them to buy into the ideas. However, if all avenues have been exhausted, and the blocker still refuses to consider any ideas for improvement, then the company will either need to make some changes or be satisfied with mediocrity.
John Dyer is president of the JD&A – Process Innovation Co. and has 28 years of experience in the field of improving processes. He started his career with General Electric and then worked for Ingersoll-Rand before starting his own consulting company. Dyer can be reached at (704)658-0049 and [email protected]. Linked In Profile: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/john-dyer/0/646/75a/