3 "Code Words" that will Kill any Process Change

Jeff Cole

Lack of engagement in the Operational Excellence realm is a common hurdle to implementation, but if you spot the warning signs early enough you have a chance of managing it, writes columnist Jeff Cole this month, as he outlines three "code words" to look out for.

Have you ever experienced this? You pour endless hours into improving a process only to find that the people who need to use it don’t engage. This is a perennial frustration for many of us in the Operational Excellence world. Lack of engagement throws the "kill switch" on any change. If you can see it coming early, you have a chance of managing it. So what are the early warning indicators to watch out for? Below are three phrases that can stop your change dead in its tracks:


"We’ve always done it this way"

Code words for "I’m not using your new process – I already know the old one and don’t feel like changing" Just like a river gouging out the Grand Canyon, repeating the same inefficient process for years or decades will wear a deep canyon into your audience’s minds. It becomes muscle memory -- almost like a neuro-chemical attachment to the old way of doing things.

Rx: If you hear this phrase, check out how long your target audience has worked with this old process. Climbing out of that canyon will be easier for some than others. Build an escalator – make it as easy as possible to make the change. If they are in a warm, cozy canyon, they may stay put. If that canyon was to slowly flood with cold water, they may head straight for your escalator. Busy humans follow the path of least resistance. How can you make the old process hard to follow and the new process very easy? Don’t forget the power of "pride of ownership" – if the audience helps design the way the new process works, they’ll be more likely to embrace it! Simply communicating the benefits of a new process isn’t enough to get everyone out of the canyon…

"I don’t have time…"

After the Big Recession, it seems that every worker is doing the jobs of 2-3 people from years past. It’s a legitimate dilemma. It is also the #1 bluff used by many people to get out of something (code words for "I don’t want to…" ). If someone doesn’t follow your process it’s either due to Ability (I legitimately can’t follow the process) or Willingness (I choose not to follow the process). Willingness issues frequently disguise themselves as Ability issues and indicating a lack of time tops the list.

Rx: Prior to communicating with someone and asking them to change, you should communicate with their boss. People tend to do what their boss asks them to do. Thus, start your commitment to the new process at the top of the management pyramid, and have that commitment trickle down. Bluffs are called using this approach. For legitimate "no time" situations? Our March, 2015 column provides several tips for squeezing in the time despite hectic schedules, including the "Pay Yourself First" and "No Extra Time - N.E.T." techniques.

"Yes, but…"

Code words for "will you and your change please go away?" As any salesman will tell you, what follows that phrase will be a laundry list of objections to your change. It’s their hope that by hosing you down with a number of random objections you’ll be demoralized enough to leave them alone.

Rx: They are actually doing you a favor by providing some insight into their thought process. Consider doing an FMEA or at least a Force-Field Analysis prior to rollout and communications. Both will allow you to take a "devil’s advocate" point of view of your change. If you have anticipated the objections in advance, you’ll have a more well-thought-out reply. Look underneath what is being said – many emotional concerns will be stated as logical objections. Rather than a 1940’s style "Ben Franklin Close" where you list the positives and negatives (while ensuring the positives outnumber the negatives at least 3 to 1), consider this: People buy based on emotion and justify that based on logic. That applies whether you are selling refrigerators or process change. Prepare in advance to address anticipated objections. Appealing to the underlying emotional aspects (ex: fear of having to learn something complicated), as opposed to just the surface logical aspects tends to be significantly more successful.

As you can see, much of the advice here is to talk to people in advance of the change, and scan for the code words that will let you assess your level of risk. Avoid surveys – the phrases that come out of their mouths when they haven’t had time to think are the most telling.

Have a happy change!