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An elegant solution is only the beginning

Contributor: John R. Schultz
Posted: 02/02/2014
An elegant solution is only the beginning
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"I thought we took care of this problem a month ago." This statement, or a similar one, is regularly repeated by managers and executives who have championed or sponsored change initiatives only to later find repeat failures and ongoing remedial action. This realization is supported by published estimates indicating 30% to 75% of team based projects do not meet expectations.

Why do changes often well-conceived frequently fall short when put into practice? System improvement is more than the discovery of a well-designed solution. It is a project-based twofold method that includes both problem resolution and solution implementation. These activities require technical as well as people-centered competencies.

Don't forget the people!

However, such practices typically engage matter-of-fact and quantitative methods for getting from a troubled situation to a calm productive one. Although, techniques of this nature are effective and reliable, there is almost no instruction explaining how workgroups will be affected by improvement, or how the organization can deal with underlying behaviors that arise when work processes are changed.

For instance, consider this example:

A manufacturer of water pumps and supplier to the automotive industry had this experience. The company was being pressured to adopt a just-in-time one piece flow production system. The project was being spearheaded by the vice president of operations. His changeover team included several production supervisors and manufacturing engineers, but no one from shop floor workgroups. Planning was, for the most part, handled by manufacturing engineering.

In the six months since the project was launched, there were many problems that seemed difficult to pin down. The vice president of operations was convinced that the workforce was trying to sabotage implementation efforts. He stepped up pressure on the transition team and supervision by becoming directly involved in shop floor decisions. He personally gave directions and spent considerable time with hourly workers trying to diagnose issues.

However, he had difficulty discovering root causes and answering the apparent rise in resistance. In frustration, the vice president of operations demanded tighter schedules for changeover activities and exhorted production supervisors to do a better job of managing their responsibilities. He threatened his staff by suggesting new people might be better at forcing issues and resolving problems. In the end, however, the company owner replaced the vice president of operations.

Any time a work situation is altered, feelings are involved. The issues encountered will be both technical and emotional. Although the current process may be flawed and difficult, stakeholders have figured out how to make it work. The routines they have built provided a sense of comfort and stability.

When threatened with disruption the result can be fear and defensive behavior because most of the workforce has learned to operate under existing conditions. Individual members have built mental models that afford them pride in workmanship and a sense of dignity. The real problem, then, when introducing improvements or making changes is not the technical aspects of modification, but the human relation issues encountered.

Nourished by their technical knowhow, change agents and problem-solvers are frequently baffled by the reluctance of coworkers and stakeholders confronted by upgrades to their routines. The reactions displayed are usually subtle, somewhat bothersome, and appear as brooding, quarreling, continual questioning, a reduction in cooperation, a loss in output, and sometimes outright expressions of hostility. Yet, in response, change agents and their sponsors often shrug these behaviors off and chalk them up to the notion, "people naturally resist change."

However, the issues encountered don’t bring about a more enlightened approach. As a consequence, advocates for change and improvement try to shove the results of problem solving down the throats of system operators who have been friends and colleagues, and of course, they rebel. By not taking sufficient time to consider stakeholder needs, well-intended solutions do not find traction as participants come to grips with altered work process and unfamiliar concepts.

People who manage and work in the system then become grousing skeptics, procrastinators, and even active resistors. In most organizational and social-political settings people have options. They can quit, go on strike, reduce their output, protest and sabotage directives, or engage in a campaign to overthrow the status quo and gain control. Due to frustration, improvements then languish without having a lasting impact because changes sedated by time then revert to old and more familiar habits.

Here are two actions that can help anchor and sustain a project based program:

#1. Empower people to take action:

Empower stakeholders and affected workgroups with the authority to make changes and accept responsibility for decisions related to their actions. Provide direction by establishing boundaries for action and defining what the expected outcome should be. Grant workgroups freedom to choose how things will be handled, and allow latitude in their activities without second guessing or micromanaging their effort.

#2. Manage resistance:

Look for and manage resistance to improvement. If there is sizeable push-back, it might be a sign something was missed or concerns were not adequately handled. Don’t move ahead without finding out why people are unhappy. These techniques are methods for dealing with resistance to change: Two-way communication; Group participation and decision making; Education and training; Negotiation and bargaining; and Economic incentives.

There are several lessons here. Workers seldom resist technical change, but social change—those alterations that can impact social structure and wellbeing—are often a point of contention. People don’t resist change; they resist the pain and threats that come from it. Good ideas, although meant to be implemented, often get put into practice simply as a matter of fact. Problem solving methods rarely consider the resulting human consequences. Technical competency and human relations skills are sides of the same coin. Both are needed to anchor change and sustain improvement.


Thank you, for your interest in An elegant solution is only the beginning.
John R. Schultz
Contributor: John R. Schultz