How to make ‘change’ happen?

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In companies, there is a constant pressure for continuous improvement. There are pressures to improve things on multiple dimensions be it processes, products, people productivity, cash flow etc. Because of this, there is a plethora of improvement projects deployed in any firm at any given time. But, can there be a situation where the very change that people are trying to implement becomes its own biggest hurdle?? Talk to any person in top management or a consultant or HODs about how many changes they have been able to implement successfully with forecasted results being achieved and you get a grim picture.

Still born ‘Change’ initiatives

There are many improvement projects running “on paper” but if you go into the details, it becomes clear that nothing has actually changed at the ground level. Over time, these changes are either abandoned (as people come to terms with the fact that the proposed initiative cannot be implemented due to various issues) or they are put on hold. Sometimes they continue to exist “on paper” but management focus gradually fades away. Changes, however noble they sound at start, are rarely able to meet the objective of improving the systems so that firms are able to reap benefits in terms of top line/bottom line financial results.

So the big question remains, in today’s ever-challenging environment, how do we implement change? Is there an alternative way wherein we have the cake and eat it too?

Generally, the state to reach (‘what to change to’) is very clear to everyone. Employees know it better than anyone else. So if it is clear to them, why don’t they do it? They have the experience and the know-how needed but still change initiatives are most often still born. Even when managers are convinced about direction in which change has to be perused, the change doesn’t happen!

The elusive “How”

This is because the key lies not in ‘what’ but in ‘How’.

The changes, however noble they may sound, have to be worked upon by people/departments. But the ‘How’ part at the department/people level is often not very clear. While goal being aimed at is fairly clear, what an individual or a HOD needs to do to make it happen is not known. So, the How part has to be answered not at the company level or department level, it has to be answered at an individual level: the individuals whose way of working has to change.

Further complicating matters, these very people who implement and sustain this change have no say in designing the solution. Traditionally, the improvement projects are implemented in an organization based on the management’s perception of the problem, industry benchmarking, or some back-end analysis, which shows that current way of working is inefficient. After the solution design is done behind closed doors, the other stakeholders are told to follow the agreed SOPs. This process, while it leads to faster solution design, has an inherent flaw- the perspective of stakeholders is left unaddressed! This leads to two issues: 1) The SOP developed could have unidentified ramifications in some other area which may then lead to the overall system not benefiting (and sometimes harmed), 2) The people who have to work as per the SOPs feel that these have been forced on them and hence feel no sense of responsibility to ensure its success.

Making ‘change’ work

To tackle these two issues, all the stakeholders need to be a part of the solution design. A decision can be taken on whether everyone has to be involved or if a few representatives from each area can be part of the task force. This task force should not be given a hard-coded solution but be offered a direction of solution. In most of the cases, with some channeling and focus, the employees themselves are more than capable of finding out correct way of implementing the change.
But before that, there should be a debate on the merits/demerits of the solution with the task force. Questions like- is this solution the only way?, is the solution leading to bigger ramifications? etc need to be fiercely debated. While this process of debating and detailing the solution, the people involved buy- in on the idea and become convinced about the future benefits. Moreover, since the task force comprises of people who are actually going to do it, there is an automatic clear-cut focus on answering the “How” part at each drilled-down level. This debating and solution design may lead to a higher elapsed time at start of the initiative but once the solution is agreed upon, the implementation happens at break-neck speed. This sets the right foundation for the building further change. Executed differently, any change perceived to happen tend to be temporary and there is always an in-built pressure for the new system to collapse. But done through a more democratic process, individual stake ownership of the solution they have designed together and hence sweat it out to solve any future hurdles.

Conclusion

Any change has to first happen in the mind-set of people. If done correctly, there is an opportunity for a robust solution design and implementation and yes, the improvements will be reflected in the top/bottom line of the balance sheet.
To summarize, the key questions that need to be answered before any successful change to happen are as follows:

  1. What problem is getting solved by this direction of solution?
  2. Why will only this solution solve the problem and not any other one?
  3. Will this solution cause ramifications in any other area?
  4. How can this change be achieved: Not at company level but at the drilled down individual way of working or behavior level?
  5. Do people at the ground level own the solution design and its tailoring?
  6. Is the solution too rigid (Ground realities keep changing and hence flexibility is required)?
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