Effective Change Management Demands Evolution, Not Revolution

Keith Price has over 40 years of experience in industry with more than two decades of that in senior leadership positions in large international companies. He is an expert on building and implementing lean and quality management programs that work over the long term. His key insight? Change management is about evolution, not revolution. He now works with small and mid-sized companies to equip them with the tools and techniques to turn their strategies into implemented operational plans that yield business results.

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In your experience working with a lot of different companies, it seems so many programs and initiatives fail over the long term. Why is that so, and what can companies do to prevent that from happening?

When people bring in a big program like Lean or Six Sigma or whatever they want to call it, often they bring in consultants and then there is one champion within the business. When they first start, everyone is very gung-ho about it. They get some good results, things work well, and everyone is very happy about it. Then either the consultants go, or the champion has done so well that he or she gets promoted. Unfortunately, they haven’t inculcated the behavior throughout the organization. Without ongoing support, things fail. They had one champion that focused on the program and not the behaviors that having such a program should engender.

I call that revolution rather than evolution.

What I have tended to do is not bring in programs but bring in the tools that one might find in several different programs so that the organization comes up the learning curve almost imperceptibly: They start doing Value Stream Maps, they start doing Five Whys to get to Root Cause, they start doing Paretos, they start doing Affinity Diagrams to deal with qualitative of data, and so on, rather than have a big program. To me, that is one of the big keys: Tools and behaviors not programs.

Another problem is that people sometimes bring in a program, but it is not abundantly clear what the end looks like. One of Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to begin with the end in mind. Knowing where you are going and what you need to do to get there is vitally important. There needs to be a shared vision of what we are striving for so that we monitor progress and adjust course as required.

My first bullet point around what you need to do to make a program successful is that you need clear goals, clear ownership, clear accountability, and clear metrics along the value delivery chain. A story from one of the companies I worked at: There was one guy given the responsibility to get the Net Promoter Score up from where it was to several points higher, but he was the only one in the company who was given that task. There was clear ownership –he was the one guy— but there were not shared metrics along the value delivery chain. The people at the coal face – people on the shop floor or customer site – dealing with customers every day, they had revenue targets and time to fix the product targets based on whether they were in Sales or Service. They did not have any metrics or alignment about increasing the Net Promoter Score up several points. Until that happened, nothing improved.

You need clear ownership. Who owns it? Who is the one person the CEO can go to and ask what is happening? You need clear accountability. What are people trying to deliver? For what are they holding themselves accountable and for what are you holding them accountable? Finally, what are the metrics that will be shared across the value delivery chain and who shares them? If it is only one or two people in the company who know what the metrics are, you really have no chance. We have to have those metrics shared between R&D, Marketing, Operations, Sales, Finance, HR, everywhere. They all have to have some skin in the game and an alignment taking place across the organization.

How do you explain the difference between evolution and revolution to senior executives when they might very easily be looking for fast results? How do you reframe their expectations?

I have been very fortunate with the CEOs with whom I have worked. They understand that this takes time. Unless they get that, you are fighting an uphill battle. You have no chance. When people are talking about change management, what they are really talking about is the behaviors. How do we get the behaviors to change? How do we equip people to make that change? How do we point out to everybody what that looks like and why we need it?

Most importantly, it is a matter of talking to the leadership team and getting them engaged. You have to remember that people on the shop floor –people at the coal face– they want change. And senior management, they are often the ones who are the most excited about change. It is the middle management where things get stuck. The people in middle management can be very conservative. They are afraid of losing control. That glacial layer in the middle between workers and senior executives is where the real work needs to be done. They are the people you need to get involved in your steering groups and your coaching training to make them part of the solution. Helping them to define the problem in their own terms and then making them part of the solution will transform that glacial layer into your most effective supporter and driver of change management.

It continually evolves, and people get more and more tools in their toolbox, more arrows in their quiver. The more they get, the more they want. That’s continuous improvement. That is a change in culture over time.

So it’s not about top-down versus bottom-up? Cultural change begins in the middle?

Absolutely. Have you ever talked to a CEO or a senior leadership person who doesn’t want change for the better? No, of course not. Have you ever talked to someone putting the screws in and bolting it all together who doesn’t think everything is all messed up? No you haven’t. It’s the layer of middle management between the two who are afraid that if things change, they will not be in control. If you engage them fully in defining the problem and defining the solution and give them the tools to get to the root causes of issues, then you can change the world.

Effective change management means the behaviors change over the long term. When does the new way of doing things become the standard operating procedure? The new normal?

It’s almost normal from Day One. It’s like the boiling frog. It’s evolution, not revolution. When you go into a company that has brought in a consultant and now has 10 master black belts and 75 greenbelts, that’s the sort of thing that atrophies when you stop feeding it. Without someone pushing a program through, it will stop moving forward. Instead, when you do it by working on the tools and behaviors, people change and they don’t even realize they’ve changed.

In my companies, every year during the last couple of days of December, I published a year-end newsletter. I would talk about all of the metrics that had gotten better over the last year, and all of the changes that have happened in the departments over the last year. It’s a bit like when my parents came to visit me and my kids: I live a long way from my parents, and when my kids were five or six right through to about eighteen my parents only saw my kids once or twice a year. They would get off the airplane, and the first thing they always said was, “My, haven’t those kids grown.” Well of course they’ve grown. You haven’t seen them in six months!

That’s exactly the same way an organization grows. My how we have grown! But if you are in it every day –evolution not revolution– you do not see that change until you step back. It is the leader’s job to step back and see what we have done over time. It continually evolves, and people get more and more tools in their toolbox, more arrows in their quiver. The more they get, the more they want. That’s continuous improvement. That is a change in culture over time.

How do you get the most out of the subject matter experts you have who already work within your organization?

If you give someone a project to do to improve something and they have never worked in an organization that does that really well, you are going to get a suboptimal solution. One of the companies I worked for, they always asked whenever they gave someone a project, “Does he or she know what good looks like?” If they know what good looks like, they can understand where they need to go. If they do not know what good looks like, you will only ever get small, incremental improvements instead of any great paradigm shift.

The power of having experts around an organization is that cross-functional teams can be very effective when everyone realizes that A) they have different frames of reference and B) they have two ears and one mouth, and that’s the ratio in which they should use them. Everyone sees the world through their own frame of reference. They see the world how they are, not how it is. If you have good facilitation, you can get those people together to work on a multifaceted problem from all their own perspective. With good facilitation you can get all of their knowledge out on the table and frame the problem as it really is, having seen it from a number of different angles. Then you can define the real problem. If you don’t put a good problem statement together, you will all be working on something different in no time at all. You need to be clear about what the end goal is, and everyone needs to be heard so you get that expertise and those frames of reference out on the table.

What should people take away from this interview?

It’s a journey, not a destination. You need to be clear about where you are going, but it is the journey that will give you the gains. You will never reach perfection, but if you don’t try for it, you will never get anywhere near it. Keep pushing for perfection in those incremental ways. Don’t try to do a huge paradigm shift on everything. Pick the one or two or three priorities, because those are the things that will then get the resources you need to make that shift. For everything else, small incremental changes.

Keith Price has recently attempted once again to retire but continues to run a small consultancy firm to keep himself engaged in the work that he loves. If you would like to contact Keith, he can be reached at keithp8888@gmail.com or by phone at 503 896 2597.