Change Management Tool Seduction: The Danger from Climbing Higher

Change Management Tool Seduction: The Danger from Climbing Higher

Executives who produce peak performance in the face of extreme challenges succeed by recognizing and surviving specific dangers.

With morning coffee in hand, John walks to the conference room. He feels a slight sweat break out on his forehead. He didn't sleep well because today he announces the next change program to his manufacturing staff. He's not stupid. He knows what he's walking into -- cynical employees who dread the next "theory-of-the-month."

John's not alone. Many manufacturing organizations we work with are still reeling from the impact of organizational change programs:

  • Wasted Time: Several supervisors at an auto parts manufacturer complained, "We finally documented our processes for ISO certification then management went on an industry best-practices tour. They found out our processes weren't the best in the first place. All we did was waste our time certifying poor processes."
  • Increased Politics: A power systems manufacturer's quality program failed as interdepartmental feedback data wasn't used to improve processes, but seen as an attack from being "written up." The ensuing write-up wars brought the organization to its knees.
  • Functional Distractions: A hi-tech manufacturer development team was frustrated as they tried to figure out how to make their R&D meet the mandatory quality policies. How would they know which "idea" had enough quality?
  • Strategic Misdirection: One plant manager complained about the overhead of six-sigma process. "Our bottle caps work great at 3-sigma. We''e achieved no more market share or profit from the extra quality. I think management forgot to look at how the program would support our strategy."

But why do some manufacturing changes implement well while others flounder using the same methods? Seeking an answer led our research to a unique laboratory -- the death zone; that altitude above 26,000 feet which makes survival for a long period of time impossible because of the lack of available oxygen. In this environment climbers reveal insights previously unnoticed by mainstream management experts.

Climbers bear a resemblance to manufacturing executives.They live passionately while confronting impossible odds. Some are deeply humble; others are psychotic narcissists. They come with all levels of competence; from naive wannabes to elite athletes. And when put to the test, they react like all of us: sometimes like heroes, other times like self-destructive villains.

In our study we expected to find new leadership principals, but we found something else. Executives who produce peak performance in the face of extreme challenges -- what we call high altitude leaders -- walk a different path. Instead of being seduced by the latest leadership platitudes, cliches or feel-good organizational change theories, they succeed by recognizing and surviving specific dangers; dangers that always emerge on the journey to higher performance. Eight dangers seem to threaten peak performance:Fear, Selfishness, Tool Seduction, Arrogance, Lone Heroism, Cowardice, Comfort, and Gravity. If we had to choose one for manufacturing, we'd choose Tool Seduction.

Tool Seduction

In manufacturing, managers typically look for tools to help. Tools like team training, continuous improvement, process engineering, quality programs, culture alignment, leadership development, or other methods. The problem isn't with the tools; it's in how management relates to them. Is your company using the tools, or are the tools using your company? If the latter, you may be infected with Tool Seduction.

Has tool seduction infected your organization? Be nervous if one or more of the following exist:

  1. Tool Tossing: Are managers throwing tools at problems to solve organizational woes?
  2. Consultant Lure: Are consultants hired to uncover what everyone already knows?
  3. Buzzwords: Do managers use buzzwords to make themselves look good, or make someone else look stupid, in order to further their own personal agenda?
  4. Change Program of the Week: Is your staff whiplashed from frequent change programs?
  5. Concrete Plans: Are managers seduced with the illusion that the plan is progress itself? Do plans takes on a life of their own which become set in concrete so that no one adapts when:
  • The competitive landscape suddenly changes, or assumptions fail to materialize.
  • Market conditions or customer demands change.
  • Regulatory or economic winds shift.
  • Resources become constrained

How to Avoid Tool Seduction

Before initiating another change program, we have clients do the following:

  • Assess Transferability: It worked in the manufacturing company referenced in the bestselling books, but will it transfer to us? Different cultures, strategies, leadership styles, customers, and other elements thwart the best intentions.
  • Ensure Commitment: How much discomfort is everyone willing to endure to make this happen? Change can be painful.
  • Expect to Adapt: No plan survives impact with reality. As the saying goes, "Men plan, God laughs." What is our adaptation strategy? How will we know if we have to adapt the change program?
  • Analyze Strategic Impact: Will this change measurably drive our success, or is it just an industry fashion trend? Assess what the direct strategic impact will be on market share and profits.
  • Analyze Organizational Impact: Will this change allow us to act more decisively, or just clog our shelves with interesting but irrelevant information? Will it fuel our team's passion for the challenge ahead, or derail production with useless meetings, lingo and processes?
  • Pilot Test: Validate the above assumptions with a limited and measureable pilot program before inflicting it on the whole organization. This also enables a great "learning laboratory" for your culture.

Example: Reconsidering Meetings as a Tool

At first glance, meetings look like a great tool to ensure accountability as everyone presents their project status. But challenging this assumption could offer something remarkable -- competitive advantage. Tracking performance isn't wrong, of course it should happen, but using email, intranets, and old-fashion paper to issue status reports are more efficient. Why not use the invaluable time in management meetings for what we wish we had more time for after all -- solving problems?

Examples of organizational successes using this methodology are buried in the literature. For example, one manager at the Toyota Georgetown plant used his time in management meetings to demonstrate his good performance on projects he was assigned until plant manager Mr. Fujio Cho (now the Chairman of Toyota worldwide) said to him, "We all know you are a good manager, otherwise we would not have hired you. But please talk to us about your problems so we can all work on them together." Of course, the rest is history now that Toyota has surpassed GM. Could it be that Toyota's meetings were different than GM's?

Could having meetings which focus on problem-solving versus just reporting on good performance be a more efficient use of time, produce higher motivation, help expose the real issues, promote teamwork, and support continuous improvement? If so, it's time to unhook the seduction and get this tool back on track.

What tools are seducing your organization? And is addressing tool seduction something everyone is ready for? It requires a strong, confident manufacturing management to overcome this danger. Of course, if that's not available in your organization, perhaps you've got other dangers to deal with on the journey to higher altitudes.

Don Schmincke is a dynamic keynote speaker and co-author of High Altitude Leadership with Chris Warner, releasing November 2008. Visit for their remarkable strategic, leadership, and organizational change programs.

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