How Managers Can Ensure Changes Last

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Identifying what processes can be changed is only half the battle of making an improvement. The rest of the battle is ensuring the changes are implemented and become the new norm. With no plan to make sure changes stick, one can assume employees will find a way to work around new processes within a single shift. They’ll revert to their former, comfortable, well known method(s). How does a manager encourage adoption and adherence to new processes? Let’s dive in.

Jill McMurphy runs the injection molding machine at ACME. She’s been working in manufacturing for 15 years, and has been doing her current job for 7 years. She flows restlessly through her daily work, like a river over pebbles. She shows up on time, gets her work done, and is a reliable source of quality and company knowledge. She puts out the proverbial fires when issues arise and she trains new employees when they are onboarded. Things were good for McMurphy. That is, until the leadership team set new goals. ACME’s management wanted to increase their cash flow and improve productivity, so they hired a consulting company to identify what they could change. When Consulting Inc. showed up to provide an (expensive) analysis on ways ACME can improve profitability, they noted Jill could change her methodology running the injection molding machine. The insight, from a team of young consultants, was simple – change her order of operations so it takes her fewer minutes to finish unloading waste material (the leftover bits after the injection machine runs). Why is Jill going to listen to a bunch of people who spent a few days looking at the company? What are the chances that two weeks after Consulting Inc. recommended she change her workflow, she goes back to her way of doing things? Going back to the way she has been doing them for years. The chances of her reverting to her original methods are extremely high if there isn’t an incentive system. So what gives? How does an owner or manager ensure the improvements stick?

First, as a manager or change driver, be very clear what is happening. Namely that the business is looking to find ways to improve the operations to save on costs, increase output, improve quality, etc (whatever the case may be in your situation). Sharing this information in person and in writing early puts everyone on the same page. Transparent goals go a long way. Showing the team that operating margins are currently at 29% and the goal is to get to 35% will provide a basis for why improvement projects are being undertaken, as an example.

Empower a change agent or champion. A Champion is someone who drives ideas for change all the way through to completed projects. The champion is the one responsible for ensuring the change happens. It’s one thing to think that better customer service, new suppliers, faster shipping times or your relevant changes, are a good idea. It’s another to do the work required to make those changes happen. The change agent does not need to be the CEO, but they do need to have the blessing of the CEO and the ability to operate with a great deal of freedom. It should be someone on the senior side of things that is good at making decisions, thoughtful, compassionate, and willing to do “lower level” jobs to really understand them. And, it’ll need to be someone that everyone trusts. In other words, changes need to come from within, not from an external consultant.

Next, ensure the employees have a stake in the changes in two ways. First, incentives. Either financially, or with experiences. Any improvements made should lead to raises, profit sharing increase, shares in the company, performance bonuses, etc. Another incentive is paid experiences for accomplishing the goal. Examples might be a weekend getaway in the Bahamas, tickets to a local sporting game, orchestra or theater tickets, etc. Know your audience. The second thing; give employees a stake in the decision making. Let them identify ways in which they can improve their job. If they own the changes, and know there is an incentive for making changes, they’ll be much more likely to stick with them. Prior to hiring a consulting firm, ask people doing the actual work if they have suggestions to increase productivity. Encourage them to look at the job from the perspective of an owner or investor. Provide them with the tools to view their job in terms of value added activity.

Another option to ensure changes last is cross functional job coaching. Take someone from Sales (any department) and have them shadow the Accounting team (any other department) for a day. Any operation that can’t be easily explained and justified to the Sales person is likely cumbersome and full of room for improvement (or a process that can be removed). If they both know the point of the exercise is to find ways to improve the process, they can work together with a level of honesty a manager or owner might not get. This additional honesty comes from the equivalence of their roles – neither one can fire the other. Being critical about a process is more difficult when there is a fear of being fired or reprimanded from a superior. Fear of being fired, actually, takes us to the next point.

When undergoing process changes or improvement projects, there needs to be an explicit statement that no one is getting fired and it needs to be true. If any employee is fearful that their job will be eliminated and they will be let go, their tendencies may start to lean towards sabotaging the project (recall soldiering). As an owner, manager, or executive, if there are big changes being made, finding adjacent work to move employees into can alleviate their fear of being fired (assuming they are okay with learning a new or adjacent role). Offering training, compassion and empathy for those whose jobs might be eliminated will be good in the long run (it should go without saying, but this needs to be genuine. Fake empathy is harmful). That said, there might be times when positions are cut and people need to be let go. Firing should be avoided to the extent possible though; seeing co-workers fired is a blow to morale that can lead to additional non-productivity as trust dwindles.

Lastly, the whole point of undergoing process improvement projects is to make lasting changes, which means lasting behavior changes in many cases. Creating standard operating procedures is one way to share and standardize new processes. Physical paper instructions, housed in binders, stored near their point of use are a great tool for normalizing a new development. Making the standard operating procedures should be an iterative process. Every few months, managers and workers should go over the process and look for new areas to make improvements. Continuous improvement is a culture, not a one time thing.

To recap, creating a culture of continuous improvement, having a change agent, incentivizing new process adherence, giving employees a stake in the decision making, putting the new processes in writing, and reviewing the process from time to time, are the best ways for getting changes to stick.

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