Managing Change

Organizational change is the biggest source of frustration for employees at every level. It can prevent organizations from attaining their potential or even lead them to failing completely. Thousands of books have been written on the topic. How to manage change is taught in business schools all over the world, and organizations spend huge sums of money in the process.

But are we getting better at it?

In a career spanning over four decades in manufacturing, change for me was never ending. Multinationals are marvelously constructed organizations where pressure for results is relentless. If you are expanding, the bar goes up. If you are reducing, you align your resources to match that and trim costs. In either situation, change must be managed.

For the last twenty-five years, I’ve implemented a formula that has turned poor-performing factories around, creating Benchmark sites that the wider organization tries to emulate. Almost my entire working life has been in manufacturing, and this paper is based on my own experiences of failure and success. Over many years and evolutions, I created a formula that provides outstanding results, even in situations when others said it was impossible. I have learned much in my career, but one thing is clear:

Leaders that confront difficult issues and challenge the status quo are more likely to be successful.

The following describes what I do when I go to a site, how I engage with the workforce, how I deal with problematic employees that push back against change, and the tools and techniques that have consistently provided spectacular results.

The Threat is Real – Communicate That!

Competition is fierce in manufacturing. Multinationals fight to hold what they have and try everything at their disposal to attract new investment. This message must be imparted and repeated to the workforce regularly.

Sometimes the threat is very direct, like when I was sent to a US factory to prepare it for closure, or in Ireland, when Gillette was acquired by Proctor and Gamble, and they planned to close our plant. In such circumstances, communicating the threat is easy, because it is clear. (Twenty years later both still thrive)

In other circumstances, the threat is more indirect. I have seen factories enjoy good years, get complacent, and lose their business to other more competitive sites.

Do not be one of those sites. Complacency is the death of factories.

Communicate the Vision

When instituting change, I lay out the challenges and threats to the workers, but also the opportunities. A clear vision is created, with a tagline such as: “We will be among the best in the world in our industry.”

I then tell them that I have a toolkit, which I can apply with their support and input. I ask them four key questions:

  • What is working?
  • What is not working?
  • What should we retain and do more of?
  • What do we need to do to become a great plant?

I use external facilitators to conduct this exercise with the workforce in groups no larger than twenty. Involvement and confidentiality are assured. The outcome of this consultation process is printed in booklets, and every employee gets a copy. This shows everyone that their opinions matter and provides the moral high ground when rolling out the change programs.

Call to Action: Identify the People Barriers

Managers at all levels must be appraised. You must identify who is going to embrace the change, and who will get in the way.

It is my experience that not all managers will make it. These must be separated for the greater good. I use a trusted, small team of consultants to help me quickly identify them. It is essential they are quickly removed, particularly those at senior level. Otherwise, momentum will be slowed down and undermined by their presence. The factory manager must be ruthless in driving this because the very survival of your plant may be jeopardized.

Lean Toolkit: Making It Happen

There is no more effective way to obtain better results than through the “Lean Journey”.

I like to have multiple programs working in parallel. Purchasing works with key suppliers to get new working agreements in place. We apply Kanban to our warehouse, the factory floor, and for the internal movement of work in process. We train people in the art of Process Mapping and get them to generate improvements. We use tools like OEE & TPM for productivity improvements.

In the meantime, plant reports are redesigned so that every work center has good data, enabling workers to track their own performance. All data is analyzed. If it is not adding value or used to inform and improve, it is eliminated. We also get our entire staff, including office and factory personnel, involved in redesigning their work areas through the 5S Process.

This is an outstanding tool that maximizes the involvement of people, and when implemented, will transform how your factory looks.

Visible Results

When you’re honest with the workforce, involve them in the changes, remove the problematic managers, and implement Lean effectively, you will get the results you desire. Imagine the following:

With the use of 5S and Kanban, your factory looks cleaner and better organized. Your useless data has been discontinued, and your new reports now inform and add real value. Communications Processes are in place using Visual Management, with results and key messages posted throughout the plant.

After three months of vigorous change, great excitement has been generated because improved results are already visible. After six months, a substantial change is visible in the atmosphere of the plant, its appearance, and the results. After one year, the change is truly spectacular, and it just keeps getting better as people become more familiar with this new way of working.

I have achieved spectacular results by using this formula without compromise. If you wish to learn more about my process, you can read all about the success of this approach in my book Make Your Factory Great and Keep It That Way.


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