Thursday, May 17, 2012


Effecting real and lasting change in organisations is a challenge for managers worldwide. Transforming shop floor work practices is particularly daunting, but essential for organisations pursuing operational excellence and sustainability. A lot has been written about the subject of change, and there are a number of popular models and approaches employed by organisations as they try to implement change. Most of these seem well thought out and relevant, and are designed to deal with common pitfalls of poor change management. Yet so many organisations struggle to get benefits from change programmes, and worse, when trying to implement anything new, seem to lose the foundation they had hoped to achieve with the last change initiative they implemented. The first rather obvious problem lies in some of the terminology I've employed in this post so far – we tend to view change as a “programme” or an “initiative”.  It then becomes a project with a beginning and an end, implying that when it’s done we can move on to the next thing. We then wonder why our employees are no longer practicing desired behaviours when the "programme" is over. Jim Womack of the Lean Enterprise Institute refers to these “programmes” as “stickers” or “decals” that are pasted on top of the organisation, but are not evidence of real change.

The second problem with the “programme” mentality is that the change we are trying to achieve is viewed in isolation from other aspects of our business. So, for example, we try to achieve movement towards participative problem solving, but have divisive staff structures or conflicting reward systems that, in the context of Kurt Lewin’s “Force Field Analysis” model, are strong opposing forces to change. In addition, different specialist functions, each with their own agendas, all impose their various individual change programmes on hapless shop floor employees at the same time. Besides the fact that these programmes sometimes work against each other, employees are overloaded with new work practices, morale declines and none of the intended changes take root.

A further problem I see with the “programme” approach is that it leads to a “tick the box” mindset where the bigger concern becomes outputs rather than outcomes. There is generally some kind of “masterplan” organisations are encouraged to follow, at the end of which supposedly lies the achievement of the desired change. Training is typically a large part of the change process. The plan generally does not include good change management practice, but is rather about the tools and techniques people need to be able to use to solve problems, monitor processes and the like. The use of audits to validate that change has indeed taken place is evidence of a common challenge: people tend not to use the desired approaches of their own volition i.e. without being “chased up”. This means that the process is actually unsustainable.

When wanting to implement change, it is therefore, to my mind, clear that we need to take a “systems view” and ensure good organisational alignment to the change. It makes little sense to pursue a change that is in conflict with the culture of your organisation, for example, even if the approach has seen widespread success in other environments. Change at the shop floor either means change throughout the organisation or change at the shop floor to fit the prevailing organisational environment. The table below outlines possible desirable shop floor end states and the types of opposing forces that could exist both at the shop floor and at other levels in the organisation.

Possible desired end states at shop floor
Examples of opposing forces at shop floor and management level
Bureaucratic, paper-based shop floor management systems and the need for multiple management approvals for individual changes.
Disciplined use of processes
Lack of structured interactions between management and shop floor
Cross-functional teamwork
Disparate accountability/responsibility/skill levels between team members with poor links to reward
Lifelong learning
Lack of occupational training and capacity building solutions and opportunities
Accountability for performance
Poor distinction between management and shop floor performance outcomes
Seamless communication
Autocratic management who don’t want the “bad news”

Successful change demands that management continuously scan the work environment (and the broader environment that impacts on the workplace) for such opposing forces and take concrete steps to mitigate their impact. Some of these forces may represent significant challenges that cannot be dispelled with the wave of a wand. The rewards, for example, of changing an autocratic management style (a daunting change process in itself, I know) before implementing a participative philosophy at the shop floor are worth the additional time spent in fixing the environment before attempting the desired change.

Kurt Lewin and John Kotter, both recognised change management experts, have suggested 3 distinct phases in any change initiative:
  • Defrost / unfreeze the current situation
  • Establish a new level through deliberate action
  • Cement group life at this new level / anchor the change

Kotter’s model has seven steps which incorporate these 3 generic change processes:
  1. Establish a sense of urgency - this is about convincing a large proportion of the workforce (Kotter recommends 75%) that the change is necessary
  1. Elicit executive and peer sponsorship - form a guiding coalition of leaders outside of the established hierarchy to lead the change at all levels
  1. Create a vision for change - show the workforce where the change is taking them
  1. Empower employees to implement change - establish the ground rules and give employees authority
  1. Establish short term goals - milestones along the way keep employees committed. The vision will take some time to achieve, and short-term wins will maintain momentum
  1. Encourage additional changes - the short-term wins are stepping stones, not an end in themselves
  1. Reinforce changes made as permanent - link successes to organisational success and embed the “new ways” through training and continuity. For this to work, you will have had to have analysed the organisation and neutralised opposing forces early in the design phase of the change intervention.

A webinar I had the pleasure of “attending” highlighted the following interesting aspects of shop floor change (with some poetic licence on my part):
  • “It is easier to act oneself to a new way of thinking than to think oneself to a new way of acting.” Changing behaviour requires taking concrete actions and demonstrating the benefits of a new way of thinking.
  • "Implementing change is not something that can be given to somebody" – for example a resident lean expert or a consultant – it has to happen where you want the change to take root and there has to be ownership there.
  • "The change has to be linked to business performance through a scorecard" - change for change’s sake is useless if it does not deliver business benefit.
  • "In focusing on results, the manner in which the results are achieved is also important". Results should come from the sustainable resolution of problems, not short-term solutions that ultimately lead to other problems.
  • "To get away from fire-fighting while trying to implement change, direct the change initiative at the fires". If you are implementing TPM or Lean, and are struggling with breakdowns, direct kaizen events towards reliability problems, for example.
  • "Shop floor change has to be a personal experience". Training is fine, but there is more to be gained from doing. Workshops demonstrating the application of principles e.g. lean tools are a good way to get the shop floor on board.
  • "Metrics should include things which show that you care about people" e.g. safety. This helps buy-in.

What struck me about the webinar was that the issues raised by the panelists in implementing change all sounded very familiar, yet the experts had worked mostly in the United States and Europe. In South Africa we often talk about our diversity, and cultural differences are sometimes raised as a potential barrier to change. Considering the similarity of the challenges I have faced in my career with those of change agents in other countries, I am convinced that there is nothing in our wide variety of local cultures that is a dominant opposing force in the context of workplace change. We all seem to be facing the same major issues. If anything, diverse cultures should be viewed as a strength, supporting innovation.

There is one other key reason I personally believe to be behind the failure of many shop floor change management exercises. It is a subtle, yet crucial misinterpretation of what empowerment of the shop floor means. Allow me to explain. A key aspect of Japanese management philosophy is a clear divide between the roles of workers and managers. While the overall philosophy is one of participation and problem solving at source, it is management’s role to provide structure to the shop floor. This means that managers have to play an intimate role in developing shop floor work practices and systems. This has nothing to do with workers being lazy and expecting things to be done for them, and everything to do with the skill sets of managers as compared to workers. The problems workers solve and the processes they improve must be appropriate to their skill level.

It is wrong to expect workers to develop all of the management systems on the shop floor, and to be capable of solving all problems in what are sometimes very complicated technical environments. Yet this is precisely what some organisations expect as an outcome from shop floor change. There is a view that an empowered shop floor should be able to solve any problem, and be so actively involved with continuous improvement that they should drive every aspect of organisational performance. Management’s role then becomes one of “providing an enabling environment”. This is indeed one of the roles of management, but certainly too nebulous to be of primary significance.

The implications for managers are that they roll up their sleeves and get into the detail of what drives performance at shop floor level. This means that the job is not only about leadership and inspiring good performance, but also about technical proficiency and the application of that proficiency to the design of shop floor systems and structures. Of course, none of this can be done without the intimate involvement of shop floor personnel, but the point is that management must take responsibility for development of these systems. When managers feel that this level of detail is beneath them, and that they are in the organisation to look after the “big picture”, the signs of failed shop floor change are often readily apparent.