It’s not uncommon to hear the rank and file employees of an organization complain at the start of a new initiative. “Here we go again. They found religion in another flavor of the month…been there, done that.” Some will complain openly. Others are more pragmatic. “Cooperate, it will run its course, they’ll’ declare victory and leave us alone".
This is evidence of a morale barrier that can impede or neutralize the success of improvement initiatives. Where much has been written about impediments to organizational change, our experience has been there are three critical activities missing when we hear “flavor of the month”: developing the compelling reason for change, demonstrating top management support and engaging the organization in change before it happens.
The reason for change should have been well thought out and clearly articulated before the initiative is rolled to the general population. The most compelling reasons for change are external forces like competitive pressure. The executive team should be on board with the reason and their role in a communications roll out. A communication plan is best developed with messages tailored for individual constituencies (employees directly affected, employees who should know but are not directly affected, vendors, public, etc.).
The message should roll progressively to management, supervision, then union leadership and finally the general population. This allows each level to learn the news ahead of time and be in a position to support the announcement and help answer questions (rather than raise questions) in the final communication sessions.
Management support has different definitions depending on organizational level. We once conducted a study where we asked people to define “management support”. The difference between executive management and line operations was marked. Executives said that support means I’ve provided all the money, authority and resources necessary to complete the initiative. Line operations said that support means showing up in the operation to talk about the initiative and “walk the talk”.
Closing that gap is critical. Therefore, we advise our executives to avoid the video recording that will be played at each shift change. If the initiative is important, physically go to your employees during their work hours, in their work environment. Showing up on the back shift, in the middle of the shift, gathering everyone to hear you speak and answer questions is the most powerful message that you can deliver supporting their effort.
Engaging the organization early, long before proposed detail changes are finalized, reduces implementation resistance and delay. Identify credible people in the areas to be affected by the changes. Look for the people that both management and employee respect, but may not necessarily be in management or supervision. Make them part of the team that will review the concepts and design the detail of the changes. They will naturally get the word out what’s happening, reduce some of the fear of change: the unknown.
The general employee population can also be directly engaged early in the design process, before the changes are set in “concrete”. Workshops can schedule everyone in small groups, cover concepts and current thinking on how things work today. Solicit their input on what’s good (and should be kept) and what to fix. Capture their thoughts and include them in design specifications.
When the future design is ready, again conduct the workshops. Show them how and where their inputs were incorporated. Solicit any additional thoughts and go over the implementation plans.
During implementation, work with line management to conduct frequent status sessions. Identify where additional training and/or design refinements may be required. This exercise can uncover other work processes that may need to be changed to support the success of the core initiative.
If one were to summarize all the above, it boils down to communications. Over communicating is better than under communicating. Face-to-face is better than written. The message should be credible and customized for the receiver.