Glacial or Sudden Change?

“How hard can it be to change?” the client asked me about his project. The business process change this manager was leading had run into implementation problems … problems of the people variety.

It was not too big a deal — a simple attempt to start a receiving appointment process for inbound shipments into the manufacturing plant. Everyone said it made sense to do it. Well, just about everyone.

“The trucks keep showing up with appointments,” complained Steve. “I get calls from the docks about unplanned shipments, and the first thing I hear is that the purchasing agent approved the shipment. Procurement does not run the docks, Operations does.”

I listened to Steve vent about his problems for a few minutes before I started to ask questions.

“Why is the purchasing agent approving the delivery?”

“I don’t know,” answered the operations manager. “I called the guy and he said the supplier did not know about the appointments, so he told them to deliver anyway.”

“Does Procurement know about the program?” I asked. I knew that part of the roll-out plan was to hold meetings with the purchasing agents about the process change.

“We shared a copy of our appointment plans with them and asked them for feedback. Did not hear a peep.”

That caught my attention. If a meeting had happened, there would have been feedback. I knew these purchasing agents well enough to know that they would have made comments in a meeting. I knew there had been no meeting when I asked, “How did you present the plan to Procurement?”

“We sent them a copy of the plan, and the new policy via e-mail,” Steve answered.

I could see the problem — a communications system that had created a situation in which the purchasing agent approved deliveries without appointments.

“How do you know that Procurement even looked at your plans?” I asked. Before the manager could answer, I continued, “You don’t. You sent an e-pong message over the wall, trusting that the folks in Procurement had nothing better to do than to read your message. Maybe they saw the e-mail, and maybe they opened the procedure. But I bet they did not.”

I paused for a moment and looked at the operations manager looking at me.

“Here is what I bet happened. You sent the new program via e-mail and nobody in Procurement really took the time to look at it, or understand it. The message never got to the carriers. I know that part of the plan includes a new sign at the door, and that the people on the dock handed notices about the program to the delivery drivers. But the message did not get to all of the truckers. More important, it never got to the suppliers. So the suppliers keep shipping, leaving out the special instructions to call first for an unloading appointment.”

I paused again to let this sink into the manager’s mind.

“What is the best way to ensure that the suppliers know they have to tell the carriers to schedule appointments?”

“It needs to be on the PO in the Special Instructions section,” Steve admitted.

“I remember that your process outlined the roles of the different parties in detail. I know that you clearly defined how the instructions had to appear on the PO. You assumed that the purchasing agents would read the process document and follow your request. However, you did not have a conversation with them, presenting the problem and your plan to solve it, nor did you ask them for their ideas.”

Steve just looked at me.

“If I were the purchasing agents, I would be having a nice little chuckle at your expense right now. You did not even bother to ask if they could do what you were asking. You failed to consider what was in it for them.”

“Okay, so what do I do?” asked Steve. We then started to plan the recovery.

Consideration and Inconsideration

Seldom is process change easy in an organization. Usually the change, as it develops, treats a symptom and not the cause of the problem. Usually, the change is a good idea, sometimes a great idea. But the change often requires others to change a behavior, to make an effort they don’t make today. Those people may not have a stake in the benefit the change brings. They don’t feel motivated to make the change because they can’t see what is in it for them (WIFT).

Sometimes, the change actually makes someone’s job harder. The change agent sees only part of the issue; they see the problem and the benefit, but not the unexpected and undesired outcome. When a change requires someone to take an extra step or two, it is hard to enforce the change because you are asking someone to do more work for no reward.

Sometimes, the change actually does harm, making someone’s job significantly harder.

The clip below, from the 2001 movie The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, helps illustrate how managers who are attempting to make changes in an organization fail to see how the change may not be better for other people in the organization. The Woody Allen character, C. W. Briggs, is a highly successful insurance investigator in 1940s New York City. The secrets to his success are his files, his many connections in the city, and his ability to think like a criminal. His work does not impress Helen Hunt’s Betty Ann Fitzgerald, the efficiency expert who butts heads with C. W. over his old-fashioned views.

As you watch the clip, think about the scene at the end, in the bar, where Betty Ann shows up over an hour late and then misses the cues that C.W. telegraphs when she talks about moving the files to the central room.

In the beginning of the clip, C.W. is mighty pissed off about how his files got moved. The files are key to his ability to do his job, because his files are where he goes to figure out whom to talk to. Without his files, C.W. has a harder time getting his work done — indeed, it is almost impossible from his viewpoint. Betty Anne, on the other hand, clearly does not care if she upsets C.W. by moving the files.

While this is a work of fiction, it does illustrate what sometimes happens in real companies. Betty Anne shows her inconsideration in the barroom meeting, dismissing the clues C.W. drops. But C.W. is inconsiderate by not openly challenging the movement of his files. This is the time to talk about how vital the files are and to develop a better solution. This is fiction, and for entertainment, it creates this tension to make the story interesting.

Still, how many times has someone rammed a process change through your organization like moving the files in the film?

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