It takes lots of small steps to make big changes happen inside an organisation, especially one where cultures and working practices have become deeply ingrained. When I was appointed technical director for Harvey Water Softeners 18 months ago, I began making plans for a wide reaching, two-year change programme. Now, at the halfway point, here are 10 steps I have learned to follow along the way.
Watch and observe
The first thing to do is sit and wait. Business cultures have just as many intricate inner workings and rules to follow as a manufacturing line, built up over many months and years. Any decision to alter this should not be taken lightly before the current culture is fully understood.
Where a new management structure is in place, there may be an added sense of scepticism and fear of the unknown among the workforce. Where possible when this is the case, focus on familiarising yourself with the existing ways of working to put minds at rest. Even if this takes six months from start to finish, give this as much time as it needs. Otherwise all subsequent steps will suffer.
Get them on side
Let it be known that you are there to represent the team and to make sure their voices get heard. Aligning yourself with your people and getting that passion across is vital to the success or failure of future change programmes.
Simple things can sometimes make all the difference, like making an effort to shout more about your team’s successes to the rest of the organisation so that their achievements are recognised.
Whatever it is that you are looking to achieve through a change programme, if you want to bring the team along with you then you need to explain your plans in a non-threatening, non-confrontational way. There needs to be a clear vision laid out and it is essential that the people who will actually have to carry out the implementation are aware of this and understand what success should look like.
The culture of your organisation should influence how you explain your aims and the approach must be consistent, measured and achievable. In the case of Harvey, the goal was to shift production from low volume, labour intensive manufacturing to higher volumes and improved efficiencies. Because the production team there had been doing things the same way for years, a tight-knit family culture had developed. While it was important for the business that changes were made, maintaining that culture was just as important.
Understanding this persuaded me to introduce each goal steadily, drip-feeding the goals to the team one-by-one as clearly linked steps on a longer journey. That way we have maintained pace, boosted morale and avoided any ‘change fatigue’.
Address their doubts
Because a team is a bit like a family, different personalities can bring out different reactions – and any change will induce some doubt in your team at the start of the process. It is important to make sure you lead all of those people together, so allow time for additional briefings or to explain your plans over again if that is what it takes for the whole team to buy in.
The type of change you are introducing might also bring about some very specific resistance. For example, I have been introducing greater automation into a production line with the aim of having fewer manual processes involved in the production of each unit. This brought out fears about job losses which have needed to be allayed along the way.
It is one thing to tell the team that with more automation we won’t lose people, we will just make more units, but it is another thing entirely for them to accept it. That is why I began the Harvey change programme gently with a series of small, achievable targets that were easy to complete and likely to succeed.
Since then the goals have got progressively harder and grander in scale over time. That way the team has seen targets being achieved, seen outputs increase and now feels confident that the changes we are making are actually worth doing.
Keeping your management team involved in the progression of your targets from the very beginning is another way to anticipate possible negative reactions and catch these early on. By involving them in the planning stages, they can see the results and are more likely to feel empowered and start owning the programme as their own – which helps it generate its own critical mass.
Put support in place
Change cannot happen in isolation, it requires the right support structures to be in place from the start. First of all, make sure the finances are available for your plans beforehand and try to leave some ‘wriggle room’ for any unforeseen costs that may arise.
Just as important as the money side of things however is remembering to allocate enough time from the management team to support the changes and lead them to completion. This is easy to overlook but essential for success.
Find a way to maintain an effective two-way communication process, otherwise a shy workforce might be more inclined to grumble than to speak up. Try introducing a role that links the management and the shop floor – someone who hears any gripes and works actively with senior staff.
Make sure your team knows about any plans for extra training and up-skilling too. This has the double benefit of reassuring them that they are developing transferable skills should they ever need them, as well as showing them that you are putting your money where your mouth is.
After those first initial successes, resist the urge to roll out the rest of the changes too quickly. Moving slowly and quite deliberately from one to another allows your people time to really get comfortable with the process of change and in this way change becomes the norm. Your team can appreciate that it is not something to fear but rather something that needs to happen in order to maintain and grow any organisation.
Combine the carrot with the stick
Change programmes stand a far better chance of succeeding long-term if you are can nudge your team’s behaviour to match. By introducing changes collaboratively through consultation with the workforce, your plans will go down better than if they are simply imposed.
One way of doing this is to introduce a bonus scheme that is linked to the outputs you are trying to influence. The bonus that I introduced gets measured against team and individual KPIs on a quarterly basis. 70% gets paid if the team meets its collective targets and the remaining 30% if the individual meets theirs – so if one person fails to pull their weight then that gets reflected in their pay packet.
In addition to this, after getting feedback from the team we offered them the chance to switch production hours and have every Friday afternoon off work to improve their work life balance. The upside of that has been that output has increased without any extra hours being worked, however it was a challenge to convince them that the new shifts were not my way of doing them out of holiday. After an initial trial we have had 100% voluntary uptake.
Scale up your ambitions
Once your team has become accustomed to change and has experienced the benefits first-hand, you can feel confident that they are ready for your boldest plans to begin. If you are like me then these were the big targets you wanted to implement right at the start, such as introducing whole new processes or fundamentally changing the way your team works. By taking the patient approach though and bringing your team along with you, you will have successfully guided them through a series of changes by now, to a place where they are ready and willing for more.