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Frontline Leaders Are Critical to Change Initiatives. So Why Are They Often an Afterthought?

June 7, 2024
A continuous improvement director looks at the reasons behind middle and lower-level managers’ resistance to change, and shares insights on how to turn that around.

When planning cultural change, the first question often asked is, "Who owns the cultural transformation initiative in an organization?" This can be a contentious question, with common answers pointing to either executive management or senior plant management. 

However, the crucial roles of middle and lower-level managers in the cultural change process are frequently overlooked. Middle managers and floor-level supervisors typically oversee the largest number of employees in any manufacturing organization. While executive and plant leadership may plan and strategize the cultural change initiative, its actual implementation rests with middle and lower management. 

Changing culture becomes nearly impossible if middle or lower management is resistant to change. Therefore, it is essential to engage these frontline leaders and involve them in transformation efforts before addressing the lowest levels in the organization.

Let's explore some reasons behind frontline leadership's resistance to change, and then look at how to get these leaders on board.

Lack of outside experience and perspective. Many frontline leaders ascend to their positions through years of hard work and experience within the same company. They are often the most technically knowledgeable individuals in their factories and significantly influence organizational opinions. However, this extensive experience can sometimes lead them to believe that their way of doing things is the best and only way, fostering a sense of complacency. This mindset stifles growth and innovation, creating resistance to change. Additionally, these leaders may lack exposure to practices and innovations happening external to their company, further entrenching their reluctance to embrace new approaches.

Few opportunities to develop as leaders. Many organizations do not provide regular leadership development programs to support their growth in these positions. Additionally, leadership skills require continuous upgrading as business and economic conditions evolve. Without ongoing training, these leaders may develop a fixed mindset, evident in their resistance to change. This lack of development hampers their ability to adapt and grow with the organization.

Deadline pressure. Frontline leaders constantly face significant pressure regarding production output, productivity, manufacturing issues, manpower concerns, and quality control. For them, cultural transformation initiatives often appear as an additional burden on their plate already full. Improvement activities associated with cultural change are frequently viewed as a low priority, as the immediate month's production targets take precedence. They are reluctant to jeopardize short-term production output for initiatives that may not yield tangible benefits in the long term.

Failed cultural change initiatives. A very common misconception among frontline leaders is that their plant is unique in nature and the senior leadership does not understand the business and underlying issues. They strongly believe that they have already tried enough to change the culture in the past, and nothing more can be done to make it better in their facility. 

Top leaders rewarding chaos. Standard work benefits the business but can feel monotonous to employees, while chaos causes inefficiencies in business but generates stress and excitement among the staff. In organizations where senior leaders lack a deep understanding of lean and continuous improvement methodologies, end up rewarding employees for their hard work in a chaotic environment. For example, achieving monthly production goals in the last five days of the month under chaotic conditions creates significant stress, excitement and eventual satisfaction for frontline leaders. These supervisors impress leadership by winning these month-end battles, which can become a significant barrier to cultural change.

Laissez-faire culture. Some frontline leaders adopt a laissez-faire style with their floor employees, creating a strong network that is resistant to new cultural change initiatives. Change often causes initial discomfort, and these supervisors push back against almost every proposed change in their function to maintain the comfort and happiness of their team members.

Where Does Engagement Begin?

It is essential to engage middle and lower-level managers in broader efforts for cultural change, and not just through their quarterly KPI goals. They should be given increasing responsibility to lead continuous improvement projects, and supported with coaching, mentoring and encouragement from lean and Six Sigma experts who can share tools and methodologies. Leadership development training is also essential.

In addition, senior leadership should actively involve frontline leaders in tactical discussions on implementing cultural change initiatives, and expect monthly reports on the progress of frontline departments or areas of responsibility. Floor level leaders are the people who can share the real issues on the floor. Top leadership awareness of and attention to these issues not only has the potential to improve operations but gradually helps builds trust throughout the organization.

Given the constant evolution of technology, sending supervisors to conferences and expos can also significantly broaden their perspectives. Additionally, plant supervisors should participate in annual benchmark visits to neighboring plants through local non-profit organizations. These visits allow them to see their own operations from an external viewpoint, helping them identify their strengths and areas for improvement.

Building Accountability: Top Leadership Edition

For their part, top leadership should make it a priority to actively participate in daily management gemba walks across all levels, with a particular focus on daily department production meetings and production status meetings, to ensure daily achievement of production goals by each department. This proactive approach helps avoid creating undue month-end pressure on employees.

Involving top leadership in daily management walks also dispels the perception that senior leaders lack sufficient understanding of the business. Moreover, planning standard work based on the insights gained from daily management meetings is crucial. This structured daily management process holds supervisory levels accountable for their actions and encourages sustained improvements.

Structure Is Important

Implementing cultural change within an organization becomes manageable when it is approached with unwavering dedication and meticulous planning. It should be structured as a comprehensive program, overseen by a seasoned internal employee with extensive experience, to ensure successful execution.

Involving floor leadership in tactical decision-making demonstrates the top leadership's commitment to positive change. Non-verbal cues to floor employees often play a more influential role than verbal signals in driving cultural transformation. A change management expert or continuous Improvement specialist can significantly aid in guiding the change process.

About the Author

Manoj Mohta | Continuous Improvement Director, Avalign Technologies

Manoj Mohta is a certified Six Sigma master black belt and continuous improvement director at medical instrument manufacturer Avalign Technologies. He has total experience of more than 23 years that includes experience in manufacturing and assembly operations, warehousing, quality, sales and customer service.

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