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Change Management: How to be an Operator

July 23, 2015
Operators know how to work behind the scenes to line up critical organizational supporters of the changes being proposed.

There is nothing more satisfying than taking ideas and translating them to positive impacts, especially if you contributed to formulating the idea. The organizational environment you work in can heavily influence whether you are even given the opportunity for this type of work. But don’t kid yourself. Even in a culture of distributed authority, change management is not an easy task. There is a knack to it. Those that are good at it are often referred to as operators. I’ll use an example of one change that I was involved in early in my career to illustrate how an operator works.

In a hierarchical organization formal approvals are required to try out or otherwise implement changes. These often are required across multiple tiers of management and—more often than not—somewhere along the line proposals get canned or substantially altered. In more level organizations approvals are also necessary but they are usually more informal in nature relative to the stakeholders whose jobs will be affected by the change. Depending on how they are approached, these stakeholders can either facilitate or kill proposals just as effectively as the structural impediment presented by traditional management tiers. Operators are people who know how to work behind the scenes to line up critical organizational supporters of the changes being proposed.

Building the Business Case

Before moving forward it is necessary to develop a business case justifying a change in the status quo. This business case must include both economic and common sense justification. I’ve found that financial numbers alone are often not enough. Why? Such numbers are often difficult to translate into the bullet-points needed for people to advocate on your proposal’s behalf. So, coming up with a common sense “elevator speech” is usually needed to seal the deal on getting people’s support.

Early in my career I was an inspection supervisor responsible for approval of internal fabrication manufacturing processes, including stampings. Approval for in-house produced parts was based on statistical process evaluation of the tooling and equipment that would be used in their fabrication. This approach was highly effective. Once it was determined that process capability was aligned with specification needs, you could anticipate virtually no future production quality fall-out unless something happened to the die and/or press. In fact, through this up-front statistical quality control the need for ongoing inspection of internally produced stampings was eliminated.

Our factory also purchased stampings from suppliers. The approval process for these parts was very different from the one we used for our own internal stampings. It was based on a single-piece initial sample inspection report (I.S.I.R.). Once a supplier’s I.S.I.R. was approved, they could “run” and ship us production parts. There were two flies-in-the-ointment with this approach. First, every lot of supplier stampings required approval/release by Receiving Inspection. This necessitated maintenance of an expensive infrastructure. The second was that a high percentage of supplier shipments required deviation approval from Design Engineering prior to production use.

The proposal was to standardize how new and/or revised stampings were approved for production, regardless of where they were sourced (internal or purchased). The financials of this proposal were based on eliminating Receiving Inspection- and Material Handling-related costs, including the need to get deviation approvals. The common sense part of the proposal was self-evident, i.e., having a common approval process for similarly produced parts.

Getting Stakeholder Buy In

There were several stakeholder groups touched by this proposal. The first group I approached was Purchasing. They were initially dubious. Questions that came up included:

  • Won’t this make it more difficult/take longer to get new and/or revised parts approved for production? If so, will it delay new product introductions and position Purchasing to miss supporting important deadlines?
  • How can we trust supplier measurements and analyses? Won’t they just “dry lab” the data to make it look like they have acceptable process capability?
  • What if suppliers don’t have the capability to do the required measurement and analysis? Could this lead to higher piece-prices if we impose this additional burden on them?

These are all valid concerns and I had to address them to get Purchasing’s buy-in, which I did. The bottom line on all of this was that if we were sourcing from the type of suppliers we should have been, they were likely already doing things akin to what we would be asking and implementation would only involve channeling their efforts to what we needed.

Another important stakeholder group was Design Engineering and here the buy-in was easier to get. Basically, this group had a low opinion of factory suppliers based on the number of deviations that were requested on purchased parts. The engineer I approached on the proposal actually asked me where in his job description did it say he needed to process deviations, which I couldn’t really answer. I asked why Design Engineering approved them, then, and he said there were two reasons:

  • The risk that the deviated specification would compromise “fit, function, or safety” was low enough to be acceptable.
  • Management placed pressure on that function to not jeopardize production output.

One thing that engineers understand is that the more data you have the better analysis you can perform. Design Engineering quickly caught on that implementation of the proposed change would require supplier submission of additional data that should reduce the need for deviations. They were “in.”

The last internal stakeholder I approached was Production. They were primarily concerned with ease of assembly and not compromising their production output numbers. The factory general supervisor ended his comments on the proposal by saying that Production was open to trying out the revised approach but—not to worry—if it didn’t work out, “they had enough brass hammers and could continue pounding to make the parts fits, regardless of part shape when they got to the line!”

A Possible Stakeholder Red Flag

Any time that a change to a process is proposed, there is one stakeholder that needs to be considered, i.e., the originator of the current process. This person is likely quite proud of the process being used—their baby—and to change it is seen as a threat to their reputation and/or standing. It needs to be understood that when they were initially installed many incumbent processes were a “feather in the cap” of the person that championed them.

In this example this wasn’t a problem but I came to understand in later changes I was involved in that if this stakeholder isn’t placated they could do a lot of damage to what you were trying to either get approval for or implement. I found that including this group in the implementation planning and giving them partial credit for the change’s positive outcomes is a great way to gain their support. But I’ve also run into people who were not prepared to let go of what they saw as one of their “shining achievements” and, in such an instance, you need to either find a way to go around or over them.

Implementing the Change

The final stakeholders were the suppliers, and this factory had a couple dozen outside stamping sources. Change management is a lot like eating an elephant—the only real way to do it is one bite at a time. Or, as my mother used to say, Rome wasn’t built in a day—it was built a clock at a time.

My first step was to do an inspection benchmarking tour of our factory’s stamping suppliers. I found a spectrum of capabilities. I may not be the smartest guy in the room but for that “first bite” on this particular elephant I figured that I should work with those suppliers that had the most capabilities and would require the least amount of change to their current processes/procedures to align with our in-house stamping approval process. In other words, when you’re trying to pilot a new process, plan for success, not failure.

Based on this approach I met with the management of one of our more progressive stamping suppliers and laid out the proposal. It turned out that they were already doing much of what we needed and, in fact, were analyzing their new/revised part production processes in a very similar way to a couple of other customers. I wish I could say it was a difficult task to change the process with this supplier but it wasn’t. It was easy. We confirmed their measurement capability by measuring a statistically significant number of part samples both at their location and at our factory. We found that their measurements and ours were the same within the margin of error of the measuring equipment.

Moving on from this supplier, within six to eight months we had “qualified” enough suppliers to eliminate 80% of our stamping related Receiving Inspection. Based on this experience we had set up a template for moving on to other product types and within three years—through both the qualification process and the re-sourcing from non-capable suppliers—we had essentially eliminated the need for inspecting incoming parts.

All through this my internal stakeholders had been watching very closely to see how the change would work out. Purchasing didn’t see any price increases and the new process didn’t slow down new/revised part approvals. The number of deviations that engineering was asked for went down to almost nothing. Along with this the reputation of our supply base went up as quality-related issues went way down in the factory. But the most memorable feedback I got was from the production general manager, which occurred after the first product launch—for all intents and purposes—did not use Receiving Inspection.

The day after that product launch he came into my office and closed the door. You need to understand that in this era production GMs were fearful figures and when they closed the door before they talked to you it generally wasn’t a good thing. But instead of getting chewed out he smiled and told me they had never had a productions start-up with so few assembly issues and that if this was a sign of “things to come” his people would be able to get rid of their “brass hammers.” He then set one on my desk—one with the dents and nicks to indicate it had seen extensive use—and said he thought I should get the first one they were retiring.

The next article will follow-up on a topic touched on in this one—specifications and deviations.

About the Author

Paul Ericksen | Executive Level Consultant; IndustryWeek Supply Chain Advisor

Paul D. Ericksen has 40 years of experience in industry, primarily in supply management at two large original equipment manufacturers. At the second he was chief procurement officer. He then went on to head up a large multi-year supply chain flexibility initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. He presently is an executive level consultant in both manufacturing and supply chain, counting Fortune 100 companies among his clientele. His articles on supply management issues have been published in Industrial Engineering, APICS, Purchasing Today, Target and other periodicals. 

Read Paul's articles

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