Any organization that is faced with the need to change things wrestles with the questions of what to change and how to sustain that change. What to change will obviously vary from company to company and industry to industry. Often, the answer to this question is presented to us by external forces. For example, changes in products will typically be dictated by customers. Changes in processes may also be customer-dictated, especially if they are based upon the need to increase quality or reduce product costs.
Also, changes in service are often customer-dictated, but they could be brought about by competition, as well. A competitor that changes a warranty period or a policy on installation or delivery charges may force other companies to follow suit in order to stay competitive.
Once we understand what to change, the focus shifts to how to sustain the change. Here are four points to consider when trying to keep the change going.
- Determine how the organization and its employees are expected to benefit from the change and communicate this. It is difficult to make any change if we don’t have a clear expectation of the outcome. As Stephen R. Covey author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People says, “Begin with the end in mind.” As change can affect many employees, it is critical that we not only envision the outcome, but its effect on our employees as well. Employees want to know, and deserve to know, how change will affect them. Will the change make things easier for everyone? Will additional training be required? Will the scope of certain jobs change? These are the things that employees want to know before supporting change. The sooner we can communicate such information, the sooner we can expect employee support.
- Implement a measurement system to help determine if the change was a success. It is always a good idea to measure things, as measures provide a means of assessing performance. In order to establish a baseline, determine the most meaningful measures, and even begin collecting data before change takes place. Lead time, on-time delivery, first pass yield or cost to produce are good examples of measures that most people can relate to and understand. For example, if a company can show that its current on-time delivery is 85 percent, it will have an easier time selling change that is geared to increasing the on-time delivery to 100 percent. Comparing pre-change and post-change measures allows us to see the impact of the change, whereas changes made without this comparison may make benefits difficult to evaluate.
- Be flexible. If the change did not produce the desired results within a reasonable period, consider another approach. Even the best plans can encounter unintended consequences. Flexibility demands that we react effectively to these consequences and take necessary corrective action. Although all change takes time to yield results, we need to review progress (with our measurements described above) on a regular basis. A lack of progress can frustrate not only those at the top or the organization but the entire workforce. Being open-minded to change requires we also be open-minded to the possibility that at some point we may need to change the change.
- Recognize that reinforcement will be necessary. Some believe that simply providing someone with directions or information once is sufficient to ensure that person makes the most use of that information. Unfortunately, in the real world, not everyone grasps everything on the first shot. Repetitive training, clarifying expectations and even re-issuing of instructions may be required. Although this can be frustrating at times, it is important to not give up and to stay positive. Recognize that some change requires a little longer to take hold in some companies than in others, just like some types of change provide better results than others. Rely on the measures you put in place to monitor results. If problems are found, look for root causes. Did the change itself lead to the problems, or has something else occurred? Is sufficient information being provided to everyone (and how do we know)? Are we assuming things are happening, when in reality they are not? Are original assumptions that prompted the change still valid? Followup and reinforcement will be required to make change stick.
As we know, change is not easy, and maintaining change can be even harder. However, keeping the above points in mind should make any change more manageable and ultimately more successful.