"I thought we took care of this problem a month ago."
This statement, or a similar one, is often voiced by managers and executives who have championed or sponsored a team-based project and then find repeat failures and on-going corrective action at some later date. This realization is supported by published reports estimating 30% to 75 % of improvement activity will not meet expectations because of difficulty during the completion phase of problem solving.
Why does this happen? Why do projects often well-conceived fall short of their potential when put into practice?
System Improvement is About Change
System improvement is much more than problem solving. It is dual-staged, having two dependent parts that must be handled with the same enthusiasm to ensure success. The first segment is concerned with problem identification and solution finding, while the second segment deals with realizing a corrective action. Both segments operate under time constraints. Team members and sponsors, anxious to bring activities to a close, then rush through the last few steps and frequently end up shoving the results of problem solving down the throats of process operators who have been friends and coworkers.
By not taking the time to consider stakeholder needs and on-the-ground realities, a well-crafted solution can fail to gain traction while workers and supervisors come to grips with new and unfamiliar concepts. People who work in and manage operations then become grousing skeptics, procrastinators, and even active resistors. Due to frustration, improvements are half-heartedly accepted without creating a sense of ownership and an on-going need for change. The resulting indifference and push-back is received with surprise and chalked-up to the notion that people naturally resist change.
Better Planning, Better Acceptance
System improvements that are well planned and carefully managed have a much better chance of being accepted. People experiencing change are less likely to feel intimidated when they can understand and anticipate how alterations may impact their work. A step-by-step approach that is open and inclusive will be generally viewed as less daunting with improvements being more readily accepted.
Table 1 illustrates an approach to managing the process of change. Activities described are applied during the implementation stage of problem solving. The difficult job of shifting attitudes is much easier when using clearly defined steps to alter comfortable and workable traditions. Fixes are more likely to become integrated when deliberate measures are used to sustain improvements.
Table 1: Steps to Sustain Improvement and Anchor Change
1. Explain the need for improvements
2. Communicate a unifying purpose
3. Identify formal and informal network and ensure their participation
4. Create a plan for action
5. Create the opportunity for small but meaningful gains
6. Empower people to take action
7. Manage resistance to system improvement
8. Complete the restructuring of routine activities
9. Monitor and sustain improvements
Apply the Steps
Phase One: Create Awareness
Before improvements can be made, people need a reason to make them. Certainty will usually outweigh uncertainty. So, start by crafting and framing a reason for modifying behavior. Define why improvements are needed. Consider using some of the following sources as a basis for making the need obvious:
- Benchmark shortcomings against competitors or leaders in the organization’s market.
- Document and display information about complaints from customers, clients, and stakeholders.
- Document and display data related to rejects, scrap, rework, or the failure to maintain routine process control.
- Question waste that is the result of complexity, bureaucracy, overproduction, excess inventory, transportation, waiting time, or unnecessary motion.
- Expose excesses in spending and the inappropriate use of resources.
In addition, develop a central theme that people can rally around and create a sense of urgency so those impacted by change are ready to take a chance on something different. Make sure the voices of diverse workgroups are heard and that affected individuals have an active role in completing the transition. Don’t exclude views considered contrary or outside the norm. Trying to silence negative voices all in the name of positive thinking will only heighten the resistance to improvement.
Invite workgroups and stakeholders -- particularly those who have not been directly involved with developing the concept for change -- to meetings where progress is reviewed, questions answered and input accepted. Look for opportunities where stakeholders -- particularly informal leaders -- can be participants in the process of change and improvement. Let workgroups and stakeholder know how they are appreciated and how they can support transition activities.
Phase Two: Make a Plan
Planning facilitates and manages the details of implementing improvements. Careful preparation will coordinate and align the change agent’s effort, and set in motion a sequence of actions that are focused at achieving the desired end. Planning creates a map for getting from the current state to the desired state. Start by determining constraints, decide what steps should be taken, assign responsibility and estimate completion dates. When finished, break the plan into meaningful chunks so people are willing to take risks and can readily measure progress. The following are reasons why small steps toward meaningful gains work:
- Success appears more attainable because risks and costs are lower.
- Success reinforces the notion that effort will produce results.
- Success provides a sense of achievement and satisfaction.
- Success produces a feeling of competence and ability.
- Success enhances the feeling of control during difficult circumstances.
- Success creates interest and optimism in the next set of activities.
Phase Three: Modify and Improve
Change is both a physically and mentally adaptive process. While the environment and the structures that support it are being altered, individuals will have to adjust their attitudes and behaviors as well. This happens as a result of learning, creating a situation where new skills and responses are developed through instruction or trial and error. Make sure people are capable of operating in the new environment by providing needed training and performance support.
Empower stakeholders and affected workgroups with the authority to make changes and accept responsibility for decisions related to their actions. Provide direction by establishing boundaries for action and defining what the expected outcome should be. Grant workgroups freedom to choose how things will be handled, and allow latitude in their activities without second guessing or micromanaging their effort.
Look for and manage resistance to improvement. If there is sizeable push back, it might be a sign something was missed or concerns were not adequately handled. Don’t move ahead without finding out why people are unhappy. The strategies that follow, adapted from John Kotter and Leonard Schlesinger, are methods for dealing with resistance to change:
- Two-way communication: Used when there is the assumption that information is lacking, is inaccurate, or is being poorly analyzed. Involves listening to employee concerns and providing precise information.
- Group participation and decision making: Ensures that those affected by the change have input into the design and realization activities. Employee groups are invited to take an active role in the implementation process.
- Education and training: Special attention is paid to people’s needs and concerns through team building, confidence building, and training to ensure skills are sufficient for alterations in responsibility.
- Negotiation and bargaining: Through a process of open discussion, modifications are made to proposed changes. The rate of implementation and issues dealing with employee welfare are the concerns usually negotiated.
- Economic incentives: Some form of compensation is provided to reduce losses that result from the change. Guarantees against the loss of wages and commissions are often used in this case.
Phase Four: Standardize and Sustain
At some point, the performance improvement process will have to be stabilized. However, actions that have been designed to alter attitudes and behaviors can fail because new routines have not been fully integrated and locked into place. Redesign and shift formal and informal structures including communication links so these are compatible with new objectives. Redesign and shift individual work activities so these support structural changes and new objectives.
Continue to stay the course, but be flexible and ready to make adjustments where new patterns prove unworkable. Maintain control through guidance, by acting as a mentor or coach, but allow people to experience the change through their identifying and seizing opportunities where new skills, behaviors, and relationships can be tried out. Lead by example and illustrate through executive and management action that the new way has advantages, benefits, and is now operational.
Authenticate revised work processes by recording activities in a series of documents that are linked to organizational policy. Typical records would include procedures, job and work instructions, and supporting forms. Permanently recording process operations gives them an official status that is difficult to overthrow without formal review and discussion concerning proposed amendments.
Develop a few process metrics that will indicate how revised operations are doing. Measures should include such things as timeliness, cycle time, productivity, in-process quality, closeness to standard, and utilization. Record the data in time-ordered sequence and look for abnormal variation. Make these metrics a permanent part of a routine that is someone’s responsibility in the new system.
In addition, make observations that will provide feedback on how well the workgroup is performing. These could include the ability to get work done on time, the amount of supervision and coaching required, the amount of control people exercise over their own work, and the amount of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with current work conditions. Reward accomplishment by acknowledging and celebrating the hard work and triumphs of all who were involved in making the transition a success.
There are several lessons here. Workers seldom resist technical change, but social change -- those alterations that can impact social structure and well-being -- are often a point of contention.
People don’t resist change; they resist the pain and threats that come from it. Good ideas, although meant to be implemented, often get put into practice without much thought or planning. Communication is often poorly handled and problem-solving methods rarely consider the resulting human relations consequences.
Equitably addressing concerns and fears should become a matter of practice when reordering operations. Simply providing information and exhorting modified job performance is seldom successful. The goal of improvement and change should look beyond immediate problem resolution. The focus should include actions designed to sustain performance improvement and anchor change as a new opportunity.
Remember, problem solving is a two-part progression that includes problem resolution and solution implementation. Each phase is equally important. The same effort and concern that were practiced during the problem-solving process must be employed while implementing the corrective action.
The four steps for sustaining improvement and anchoring change provide some human-relation tools that can be added to your toolbox along with the other problem-solving and analytical gear. These tools are now available and can be used when needed so that fixes are more likely to become permanent and not a repeated exercise in firefighting at some future point down the road.
Note: The information and concepts in this article are adapted from the author’s book, Making It All Work: A Pocket Guide to Sustain Improvement and Anchor Change (Routledge, 2011).
John R Schultz has taught for more than 20 years in the Wisconsin Technical College System and was a program director overseeing an advanced technical certificate program in quality management. In addition, he has 25 years of experience as a consultant, technical services manager and product development engineer. He is the author of magazine and journal articles on performance improvement, system change and a recently published book. Making It All Work: A pocket guide to sustain improvement and anchor change. New York: (Routledge, 2011).