His very old high-end manufacturing company was trying to face up to reality. Its traditional artisan approach was superb in producing quality. As a modern business, though, it was too slow, too limited and too expensive for its present and especially for the future it wanted to have.
While the company’s reputation was sky-high, its prospects were not good. The market was narrow and changing; costs were rising rapidly; the product was large, complex and very specialized.
Time to rethink. So, bring on the consultant.
The foremen, the skill people and the managers gathered with the owner in a series of facilitated discussions to consider what to do. The imported moderator was operating with a vision of managed change: Preserve the best of tradition while innovating through modern – profitable and sustainable – methods.
The owner sat in the midst of the descriptions, demonstrations and discussions, largely silent.
The others really got into the examination of workplace routines and challenges. They observed that much of what they were talking about resembled previous suggestions. Sometimes a new approach had actually been attempted, but each soon fizzled.
Well along, the conversation turned to discussing how those earlier ideas, and some new ones, could actually be brought into the manufacturing system. Many of them seemed to be just common-sense tactics; quite a few others were significant strategies.
Then something derailed it all. As this consideration took solid hold, the business owner suddenly spoke: “Well, that’s not the way we do things here.”
The facilitator had assumed process improvement (change) was the very purpose of the conversations. Apparently not. The look and tone from the boss made it clear there would be no such thing. Right at that moment, abruptly and finally, the discussion was over. So was the workshop series.
At the moment it dawned on him that real improvement meant serious change, he instantly killed it.
If that’s the way he felt, you ask, how did all this get started in the first place, and why did the man sit through all that talk without participating? Couldn’t he see where it was heading?
No, he couldn’t. He didn’t grasp the obvious because it wasn’t what he thought the discussion was all about. As Paul Simon so astutely sang, “A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”
Like so many of us, the owner of that business filtered immediate reality through a personal lens whose main effect was to eliminate discomfort. As we all tend to do, he presupposed a comfortable ride into a new future – envisioned as a smooth slide from a familiar now into a pleasant then.
Not going to happen.
First thing: Let’s accept the fact that change frequently will be uncomfortable. We have to engage it, not avoid it.
We need to suit up for change. If it’s more than just a new color of socks, we must carefully account for our own discomfort. Even addressing the prospect of changing can be a challenge. Maybe even with the socks. Be ready. The natural reaction is rarely logical – it’s deeply emotional, and really not under our control.
The abrupt end to the idea session was an unusually clear example of the famous “communication problem.” The owner and the staff members had vastly different concepts of what this exercise was all about.
The boss apparently had been operating on an assumption that this was just a way for people to express opinions. Any changes that might result would be limited.
Instead, it became very clear that these guys actually thought they were going to disturb the place. So he put a stop to it. The organization did indeed need to change, but the implications apparently had not yet sunk in.
The story illustrates the fundamental relationship between communication and collaboration in group activities – and most especially in problem solving.
Changing a big manufacturing operation requires full and open exchange of information and ideas, followed by negotiations to develop shared solutions.
Start with questions:
Why has the idea come up?
What evidence is there that processes must change?
What expectations are not being met?
What are the options for change?
What are the criteria for judgment?
What are the possible effects on operations, budget, personnel, market position, etc.?
Had such considerations preceded the discussion sessions, there would have been no blow- up. There would have been opportunity to work out, not just a solution, but a meaningful road map to a successful future.
Instead, no one -- including the facilitator and his contact in the company, asked any of the relevant questions. Each party assumed its view was the right one; further, each assumed the others agreed, or at least would go along.
When the perception gap suddenly became apparent, everybody shut down and withdrew.
The communication failure always arises from some form of that error. Left to our customary habits of thought, we slip into familiar patterns. This can be seriously damaging to group collaboration, and not infrequently, it is fatal.
The greater issue is much deeper than simple communication. The single word “change,” when applied to an organization, should sound a loud, all-points alert. Change of any scale at all is going to be challenging.
The proponents of the change tend to see its introduction as relatively easy, and the promised rewards as eminent justification for the perceived effort.
The opponents reflexively oppose and dismiss. They consider the current state satisfactory, or at least acceptable. They feel any potential payoff from a proposed change is just not worth it, or unlikely to come at all.
Once such disagreement arises, it should be seen for what it is: a natural part of the process. Working through it makes for a stronger, more broadly supported outcome. Or it may save the organization from a serious mistake.
There will be a future for the organization, and its people should not be passive bystanders as it unrolls.
They need to keep talking.
SEE ALSO: Everything’s a Problem