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Hitting the Nail on the Head of Organizational Change and Operational Improvement

By John Deehan

I’ve worked in transformational change and operations improvement my entire career, and I want to help practitioners avoid some of the same mistakes I’ve made.

Take working with manufacturing companies, for example. Sometimes, leaders at the top of these organizations exhibit an almost militaristic approach to control and treat their employees like parts of the bigger machine. Managers frequently take a mechanistic approach to change (which is where you might hear things like the expression to ‘drive’ change).

Henry Ford is quoted as saying, ‘Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?’ While no one denies Ford’s contributions to society, his skewed views of employees are still common in manufacturing organizations today. The view that people are only as valuable as the simple, repetitive task that they can perform.

In my experiences working in diverse environments and industries, I’ve learned how these particular environments contribute to people’s projection of their own values on organizational change.

In manufacturing, for example, it’s all about getting the products out the door and people can be sometimes be seen as a problem to be managed.

In the financial industry, you’re working with both people and data, but the focus on maximizing profit often leads to dehumanizing of staff and clients. Then there’s construction, and its societal value as one of the oldest professions on earth, undergoing massive technological, economic and social change.

And all of these industries now have to deal with digital transformation on top of that.

Many leaders are surprised when a minimum wage worker puts in minimum contribution. Over the years, I’ve learned how essential it is to change their perspectives and how to get the most value from change. Leaders are used to building business cases for return on investment (ROI) but what about potential ROI, where we can harness the power of every team member?

In addition to changing the perspective on employee potential, I’m often brought into organizations where addressing the change itself is the problem. Organizations and leaders get stuck in a certain way of managing, without knowing a path to move forward when the external environment changes.

For example, I recently worked with a construction company that was having a really difficult time with a big change. All construction projects follow a similar flow: concept, design, mobilization, delivery and final handover. I was brought in at the end of the delivery phase where the final touches were being put in place to hand over the project to the client.

There were over 150 people working during this part of the project. But after the project was to be handed over, their jobs wouldn’t exist.

The managers were lost. They’d known how to push (‘drive’ as they’d call it) the crew forward over the four-year project but weren’t sure how to maintain motivation and focus given the changing situation. What they initially planned was to communicate a more soft and fluffy ‘we’re all in this together’ change programme, but that was completely opposite of the culture of the organization. Not to mention the culture of the construction industry itself.

I explained to the leadership team that by going against their company culture, they risked losing enormous amounts of employee trust. Working with me, the management team was able to better understand the behavioral norms they’d already established. And they began to comprehend the affects those norms had on employees.

Then, I worked with the rest of the crew to create a rich picture of the barriers and perspectives all at play in this situation. Working with small groups, I facilitated discussion between team members to identify and depict the factors at play in the situation. Using pictures, keywords, symbols and charts, we built a collective representation of the current state, the challenges faced and the future state (which we uses to ‘anchor’ discussions and plan for the hand-over phase).

Once we had that first picture in place, each individual was able to add to the image by drawing directly onto the poster. They literally added in their perspectives to contextualize the change for themselves. The picture showed the project team what the crew felt was missing and communicated more deeply the hopes and concerns of the crew. That picture really was worth a thousand words.

Once we had the vision, we posted the 6 foot by 4 foot picture in the main construction office. As we began the transition into handover phase, both management and the workers referred to the picture when talking about the issues they had.

People knew their fears and concerns were acknowledged because the picture used the imagery they created themselves.”

Construction in general is a challenging environment. It’s dirty, hard and dangerous work, and there’s a lot of trust involved, not only within your crew but also with managers and leaders. Trust has to be there, because the consequences of failure are severe and far reaching.

At the same time, the contractor wants to extract the maximum profit from the project. And the buyer wants to get the highest quality for the lowest cost. That’s an automatic tension added to an already challenging environment so anything we can do to reduce barriers to communication has to be worthwhile.

With the rise of automation and digital transformation, artificial and augmented intelligence is affecting every industry. So how do you work today with leaders that see the human factor as the least reliable part of the system instead of the factor with the most potential to contribute?

If we want more from people, then something needs to shift in how we relate to one another. And we can teach leaders how to connect to build stronger organizations in any environment.


John Deehan will be presenting Building Stronger Alliances through Strategic Partner Selection at PeopleFWD 2018.