The Art of Change

The answers to three basic questions should help organizations adapt and cope with necessary change.

Companies today are faced with the need to change. Whether it is streamlining current processes to get lean, reorganizing the management structure to become more customer-focused, introducing new product lines to meet or exceed competitive offerings, or modifying procedures to obtain a new quality management system certification, change is required.

I have found change to be hard for some people to deal with. Due to its very nature, change removes people from their comfort zones. If changed, something that was once understood and routinely accomplished might be completely different and therefore confusing and unattainable, and some fear how this change will affect them. As some companies try to bring about change, roadblocks sometimes appear seemingly out of nowhere, understanding suddenly transforms into misunderstanding, facts get distorted and plans to implement change quickly go awry.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of publications addressing change have been produced, each offering advice to help people and organizations cope with change. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut recipe for change that works for every organization. Instead, introducing change and making it stick is somewhat of an art that requires recognition and management of a number of variables within the organization, including:

• employees (skill levels, longevity, security, ability to learn/retain new tasks) 
• work environment (space, organization, cleanliness, process flow) 
• products/services (life cycles, features and benefits, performance, uniqueness)
• technology (current versus alternative process capabilities, data acquisition/generation) 
• business climate (competitive pressure, customer expectations, cost/availability of materials) 
• company/management philosophy (required margins, return on investment, low cost versus high value add, customer satisfaction).

Depending on the change, some of these variables will receive greater attention, but all should be considered in the “art of change.” Answering three questions will help assure that sufficient consideration is given to these change-impacting variables:

1. How will this change help us? This is usually an easy question to answer if the change has been carefully evaluated. After all, if we don’t know how a change will help, why are we even pursuing the change? The best answer to this question should include a reference to customers. Whether it’s improvement in service, quality, pricing or anything else, any worthwhile change needs to have a positive impact on customers.

With so many companies taking steps over the years to drive the importance of customer satisfaction throughout the organization, most employees today can relate to customers and understand that satisfying customers benefits everyone.

An answer to how this change will help may be: “Changing this process will reduce our lead time from eight days to five days, allowing us to service our customers more effectively.” With such an answer, we certainly have focused on the customer and, as a minimum, have considered the business climate (customer expectations), work environment (process flow), technology (process capabilities) and company/management philosophy (customer satisfaction) variables.

2. Why won’t the change hurt us? This may seem like the opposite of the first question, but it is really more than that. We need to focus not only on the benefits the change will bring, but the risks associated with adopting the change. The purpose is to reduce any anxiety or perceived negatives tied to the change. Employees often associate change with head-count reduction so, if possible, we need to clarify the impact the change will have on current resources.

Using the lead-time-reduction example above, an answer to why the change won’t hurt us may be: “Changing this process will not affect our product quality in any way and will eliminate unnecessary steps, freeing up employees to work on other value-added activities.”

This answer addresses the employee (security) and products/services (performance) variables, in addition to the variables already addressed in the first question.

3. Why make this change now? There needs to be a sense of urgency to any planned change. Once everyone involved with the change understands how it will help and why it won’t hurt, it is important to move forward so the benefits can be realized as soon as possible.

Again using the example of the reduced-lead-time change, an appropriate answer to this question is: “Making this change now will allow us to beat our main competitor’s delivery lead time, providing an opportunity for an immediate increase in sales.” This answer provides good justification for the timing of the change, namely: The sooner we implement the change, the sooner we could see the benefit of more business. 

Applying these three questions to changes under consideration provides structure to the process of introducing change while addressing those variables that will often delay, or even derail, the changes needed for a company to grow and prosper.