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How to Effect Change When Not Everyone Wants to Get On Board

Jan. 2, 2020
Michelle Ledet Henley talks about change management, the 98%, and how letting people choose what they want to work on rather than telling them can be instrumental to success.

Michelle Ledet Henley is president of TMG Frontline Solutions, a Humble, TX-based change management consultancy. She also serves as principal at The Manufacturing Game, for which she develops simulation-based workshops designed to help plant personnel visualize reliability-related changes their facility is looking to make. In a presentation on defect elimination at the 2019 SMRP annual conference, Ledet Henley relayed the story of an a-ha moment she had in a conversation with a refinery manager in Singapore. She elaborated on the experience in an interview for the Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce podcast

Manufacturing Tomorrow's Workforce: You talked at the SMRP conference about the realization that there’s often going to be a very small fraction of folks who will not get on board with any change initiative. Rather than spending too much time trying to win over these individuals, you advised, reliability leaders should focus on the other 98%, because with them, you can get the job done. Can you tell me more about this realization and how it changed your approach?

MLH: You mention the conversation I had with the refinery manager in Singapore, and it was definitely an a-ha moment for me to hear it from him. I think the biggest change that it had for me personally was giving me permission, so to speak, to not have to convince everybody that this was the right thing to do. You don’t need 100%. If his number is right, there’s only 2% who are not only unconvinced but unconvinceable, and you really can get around those folks in order to get it done. Part of the conversation that he and I had was, what is it about the other 98%? Because they’re certainly not enthusiastically on board necessarily with the change, but they can be convinced, was his argument. We talked about three categories of people who are resistant to change, but given the right circumstances you can probably get them on board. So there were folks who didn’t understand what you were asking them to do; there were folks who didn’t realize that they had a role in the process – they thought it was great if it somebody else did it, but they didn’t think it impacted them – and then there were people who had been burned before. They had gotten enthusiastically on board with something but then it didn’t last, so you weren’t going to fool them again.

Part of what he and I discussed was making sure that the approach we were taking with his refinery addressed all of those folks. We knew we weren’t going to get everybody, but if we could get that 98% on board, that was going to make a huge difference.

MTW: One of the things you pointed out was that unfortunately the 2% are often vocal. How do you overcome that factor, when you’ve got this small group of loud naysayers?

MLH: What I’ve found to be the key to that success is just to go get it done. For me that’s meant going after smaller improvements. So rather than trying to do something that’s going to take a year or two years to get done, focus on something that can get done in 90 days or less just to kind of prove it. I think the biggest way to stop those guys is to go prove them wrong. Get it done; have the other 98% see, “Oh, we are actually doing this no matter what that other guy says.” It makes it easier to ignore them when there’s actually progress being made. That’s been the most important thing to us – to create those small opportunities where lots of people can participate, lots of people can see improvements in what impacts them directly. Not just hitting the bottom line that shareholders care about, but making for a better day at work for those folks.

MTW: How does this approach of getting small wins build a sense of ownership for team members, which you note is crucial not only for achieving reliability “wins” but also sustaining improvement?

MLH: Absolutely – you want something beyond malicious compliance. That only lasts as long as you’re continuing to crack the whip and micromanage it. So you want people to really believe that this is the right thing to do for the organization but also for them personally. One of the things that we think is really important is giving people a chance to choose what defects they want to work on. Rather than assigning them specific projects, we let them pick something that has meaning to them. That’s typically where you get the buy-in. The other piece of it is having them take it all the way through the process. We insist on the teams taking action, not just making recommendations. It’s very easy to come up with a laundry list of things that you think someone else should be taking care of, but you really have buy-in when you’re going to take the initiative and you’re going to take the actions that are going to make the defect go away.

MTW: What are some best practices for helping teams get started down a productive path?


MLH: What we specifically use is a two-day workshop where we expose them to this concept of defect elimination, and during the course of those two days, we’re talking about lots and lots and lots of examples. On the back end of that, it’s pretty rare that they have trouble thinking of something to work on, but outside of the workshop what we’ve found to be very helpful is having basically two things: No. 1, a list of things that have already been done, and then a list of problem areas that you know about. If you throw a list of things up there, they’re like, “Oh, yeah, that one; that’s the one that drives me crazy.”

You want the teams to really take ownership of these projects and not feel like they’re being “volun-told” to do them, that they’re choosing to do things on their own. But of course you can’t have complete chaos; you can’t have them working on just anything. And that’s where management comes in and sets the boundaries.

They’re really setting the rules that they’re willing to live with and allow the teams to work within that set of rules and step back and not micromanage. I think that’s the hardest part that management tends to have – they want a list of projects, and then they want to priority-rank them. When you do that, you make it the best project to come out of (the process), but what you’re not getting is buy-in. Because you’re now deciding rather than letting the team decide.

What we ask management to do is create a set of boundaries that they’re willing to live with. Those boundaries can be as tight or as loose as they want, but they have to live with it once they’ve established them. We typically have said somewhere around $5,000 in terms of external spend, (and) a time frame somewhere around 90 days.

But we’ve had other organizations that have said, “That’s too loose; we’re not comfortable with that.” We had a group that was going through some major changes in their processes, and they were having to go out to banks and get financing, and so their requirement on spend was 0 external dollars. We were concerned that that really was going to be a problem – that if you didn’t have any money that the teams could spend, that they weren’t going to be able to find things to do.

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But we were very pleasantly surprised that once they realized that boundary was there and they understood why, they found all kinds of things they could do without having to spend any external money. They get really creative and they look for different projects – there were certain ones where they say, until we get our financing straightened out, we can’t tackle this project; let’s put it on the back burner, but this is one that we can do without having to spend any money.

That’s really what you want coming out of this process. You want the specific defect to go away, but more importantly, you want them to be thinking about their work differently; you want them to be problem-solvers. That’s where you get the big bang for your buck.

MTW: One of the quotes that I loved from your presentation is: “What I find works the best is making the work itself motivational. You have to ask people what they enjoy.” Can you talk to me about how this plays out especially with newer employees? We hear about Millennials wanting to make a difference; they want to know the impact of their work. How do you see this play out?

MLH: Last year at SMRP I talked specifically about motivation, and in the research that I’ve looked at, they talk about focusing on direct motivation rather than indirect. Indirect is the easy one to think about, right? This the one where you’re either giving carrots or sticks. You’re rewarding people or you’re punishing people if they’re not doing the things that you want them to do. That works, but only for a very short period of time.

What works better in the long run is focusing on the direct motivations – where the work itself is something people enjoy doing, or they feel like the work has purpose, or they feel that the work helps them achieve some potential that they have. You mention Millennials; they’re very big on the idea of purpose. “Why is it that what I do matters? I want to make sure that it’s more than just bringing home a paycheck.” That’s one where I see a lot of opportunity just to connect people’s work to the end result.

I’ll give you an example I had a few years ago – we worked in a facility that made crackers, and it was a nut-free facility, and we were actually inside the facility. I had never realized the amount of effort that goes into being certified as nut-free. The vending machines couldn’t have nuts; if you brought nuts in your personal lunch, you could be fired for that. There were no nuts on the property.

I actually have a very severe nut allergy, and when we finished the work that we were doing there, I said to the group: “I now realize how incredibly inconvenient this is, and I just want to say, you may not have known somebody whom this benefits, but now you do. Because I personally benefit from this, and when I can read that package and it says ‘produced in a nut-free facility,’ and I can eat something without being afraid of getting sick, I’m always going to think about you guys and all of the effort you put into making that happen, so I appreciate that – thank you.”

I probably had 10 people come up to me afterward who said, “You know, I really appreciate you saying that, because it is aggravating, and it is a pain in the neck, and I get frustrated sometimes, but the next time that I get frustrated, I’m going to remember that I’m helping you and people like you, and that’s going to make it feel worthwhile.” I think there’s tremendous opportunities (with) that, where you connect people to the end result of the work they’re doing so that they feel, hey, I’m not just doing this because my boss made me do it; I’m doing it because it keeps the lights on, or it keeps transportation moving, or it provides new pharmaceutical products that people need, or it lets people with nut allergies feel safe in what they’re eating. That makes an incredible difference to most people.

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