July 22, 2014

Beware the surge

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Storm Surge by jedidogbert

Storm Surge by jedidogbert

I have witnessed or been a part of multiple process improvement efforts – whether they are small in nature and affect only a few people, or large, transformational endeavors designed to reshape the culture of an organization, if not its entire business model.  Some of them succeed, some of them fail, all of them go through a period of a quick, immediate up-tick in performance that looks and feels like success.  A while later, however, there is a let-down.

Some organizations commit to the new direction, usually only when there is a large investment into something tangible – like a major software implementation, office redesign or relocation, or acquisition or merger.  When the intended change is not tangible, however, and the desire is simply to make things go better or to reduce cost, the immediate surge feels good but then tends to end sliding backwards until old, ingrained habits settle in.

The pattern is well documented and observable, of course.  The dynamic is very similar to the classic marketing problem of “Crossing the Chasm” that takes an idea from the early adopters to the mainstream.  Sure, there are always people who want ot have something new just for the sake of having something new (watch the lines form around the corner at the next iPhone release), however, most people will wait a while before making a decision to try it out, and even longer before committing to the idea entirely.

There are plenty of discussion on how to bridge the gap, too.  Most will focus on the role of leadership in driving the organization and, more importantly, the people within the organization to adopt the new reality, whatever it may be.  This is done with coaching, hand holding, engagement, and so on, each of which is intended to match people’s habits with the expected behavior.

I suspect, however, that the problem when it comes to facilitating adoption isn’t so much one of driving people to the intended outcome, but in allowing people to change the outcome.  Consider the marketing analogy – if a product fails outright, would it have succeeded if the consumers themselves could have changed it into what they desired, rather than what the producer wanted to produce?  This is, in many ways, the essence of the Lean Startup movement – introduce something minimal and iterate as quickly as possible with measurable data as input.

Perhaps, when it comes to change initiatives, a similar approach should be adopted?  Rather than rolling out major process and culture-changing implementations all at once and driving people to the expected behavior, change can be conducted as a sort of crowd-sourced endeavor?  Leadership at the top is usually concerned with industry trends and overall company performance, and (unfortunately) doesn’t necessarily interact day-to-day with the the rank and file.  This places them in a poor position to determine what’s best for  the rank and file (not to mention what’s best for customers), how they’ll react to change and, therefore, how they will react.

Nonetheless, Leadership does have the authority to decide when change is necessary.  Rather than deciding the course, speed and direction unilaterally, however, I have to wonder if the better approach is to initiate the change and then step out of the way.  Let the crowd determine when course corrections are needed in order to align Leadership’s perceived need for change with people’s need to feel empowered and lasting, sustainable changes just might occur.

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  • curiouscat_com

    There is a need at times for leadership to push change. But I like, to the extent possible, to offer services, help and support and let people request help. I like to see an organization begin to see new tools and practices as something to help them. Those doing the work are the ones asking for help using the new ideas.

    To some extent, there is usually a need to get the ball rolling by pushing some projects to show this stuff works. Eventually, if the organization is going to be successful, people are clamoring to use the new ideas to improve their processes.

    • http://myflexiblepencil.com David M. Kasprzak

      I’ve no disagreement with the need to initiate and push change coming form the top. I do have to wonder, however, how does The Top know if their intended direction was the right one? Is it measurement or intuition and, if it’s measured, how frequently? Is there any thought given to what options are available when it comes time to pivot, or is the need for pivot unheard of? Meaning, leadership drives change no matter what, hits some short-term target, and then disappears to the next endeavor. Clamoring can be dangerous – it can be as much about truly seeing something good in a new approach as it is about displaying a false sense of engagement just to curry the favor of the Top. So, the real challenge is, how do we tell the difference?

      • curiouscat_com

        Agreed. There are not easy formulas to what should be done I don’t think. But there are principles: experimenting and measuring results
        are good. But you can’t always measure what you really want to know so you have to use judgement. When you measure results you have to understand variation. You have to show respect for people and drive out fear or risk tainted data that then leads you astray.

        Sometimes leaders need to use judgement to push a new idea. Sometimes doing that is very counterproductive. Having decisions made at the closest point to where the work is being done is good. If that is being done in a haphazard way (without standardized work processes, without using things like A3 or PDSA, without system thinking, without value stream understanding…) that is most likely going to be bad.

        Basically, I think you need to have an overall system of management (I like Deming, lean works too) that provides a framework for a good management system. Then you can take action to adapt the ideas to your organization. Trying to talk about applying tools, practices and concepts without the management system framework can be done but has much less effectiveness and much greater risk of problems. I talk about these ideas in my book http://curious-cat-media.com/management-matters/

        Without that overall management system guidance it is very hard to discuss because in reality for each question there are say 20 important things to consider. It you keep having to say (and respect for people is important to make this work, as is making problems visible, as is continual improvement culture as is an understanding of data, as is systems thinking, as is standardize work instructions, as is leaders knowing the gemba… people lose interest). And the truth is you often need all those things and more. And you need to actually have much more detailed understanding of what respect of people really means…