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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Are People Around? It's Culture Change, Then

   It was an architect who demonstrated for me the magical power of competent culture change. The newspaper I worked for had decided to install a new technology process that would radically change everything in our department, including the physical layout.  
     The architect was experienced, so I have no doubt he knew pretty much exactly what would have to happen to the walls, doorways, furniture and all when this new process was brought in.    
     Possibly, he knew there could be unique factors in our operation that needed to be accounted for as the place was reconfigured, but he’d done a lot of newspapers and ours probably differed in no significant way.
     Still, he went around, clipboard in hand, to every one of us, and all those people in the departments that interfaced with us. He patiently probed, listened and took notes.

     When the changes actually went in, they probably were pretty much what they would have been if he’d never done more than looked at our floor plan and work flow, and the requirements of the new process. In fact, though, that businesslike stuff may have been irrelevant to why he did all the interviewing.
     The magic in this case was in the people component of the conversion, the forgotten factor in 90 percent of such projects, at least in my experience. “Forgotten” may not be the right term, because in many cases the deciders were quite aware of worker-bee sensibilities. “Neglected” might be a better word.
     Too often, top-level decisions that affect workplace processes are shrouded in secrecy. Sometimes it's because of jealous protection of “authority.”
     Less politically, it can be failure to put priority on information-sharing because of total absorption in the planning of the quantitative parts of the project. In fact, it is not unusual for senior people to really believe those measurable, controllable factors are essentially all there is.
     More politically, a familiar syndrome can arise from consciously poor human resource management. The managers are impatient with how the questions of uninformed people retard and disrupt a smooth planning process, or they expect such resistance from their people that they postpone informing the worker bees until the changes are brought in the door.

     Every change is a culture change – if there is any involvement of people, or if people are going to be affected. Change managers often are surprised at the depth of negativity that can arise from what is perceived as relatively minor change.
     This doesn’t make the managers bad people. It’s quite easy to miss this point when you’ve been immersed in working out every detail for months – and especially when you aren’t particularly knowledgeable about the processes. And most especially when your incomplete grasp of the workplace reality fails to properly account for the worker bees’ point of view.
     That’s where the architect hero of the newspaper changeover scored his triumph. It never occurred to us to doubt his grasp of our situation, because he encouraged us to do all the talking. He made not the slightest effort to demonstrate expertise at anything, be it our work or even his own. He just asked, listened and took notes.
     In doing so, he exhibited skill at a couple of the most fundamental functions of change management. One was making very early contact with the people who would be affected by the change. Another was seeking input, respecting the input and recording the input within the view of those he was interviewing.
     Actually, he may never have known just how much the workers' input influenced his judgment -- but I'll bet he knew it would, and embraced the possibility.

     This is so important. The true purpose of the intended change was not the operation of the equipment or the efficiency of the rearranged facility. It was to be creation of a faster, cheaper, more reliable conversion of news into the product presented to the readers. Not easily measurable, but very easy to evaluate after the conclusion of the project.
     The newspaper staff members were the supremely important component in the mix. This man treated them as such. The information he gathered may indeed have figured in the final plan and its implementation – but the greater importance was in establishing a positive, inclusive relationship with the people who were going to actually make the new way work.
     Beyond the personal, there is an operational payoff. This is more than just achieving a feel-good thing. The chosen process and equipment must reflect, in a very practical way, a sure grasp of how exactly they are to be used in producing the desired results. Everything about them must meet the needs of the people who will do the work. Those people must have meaningful involvement – in a consultation role, at least.
     Part of that will be getting the right tools, making quality work possible. Equally important, the people using the tools will have ownership. I picked this tool, and I’m really good at using it.

     There’s more to it than the purely human, of course. Excellent management requires excellent decision-making across the whole spectrum of organizational activity – operations, finance, marketing.  That's not just business. All of it contributes to the living culture of the organization.
     The broader structure always has an effect on its people. The fundamental philosophy is all-important. Are the top people brave and constructive? When they're not, it's all over. Very bad culture.
     Managing things and measuring the measurable are vastly easier than entangling oneself in people issues. Easier, and the source of much poor organizational performance.
     When a change comes along, misunderstanding its true nature can mean disaster. If it is handled strictly as a technology change, however big but only technological, problems could dog it for years.
     Looked at that way, it’s always culture change. No matter what the mechanics or appearance. More complicated when handled as culture change, more time-consuming, but well worth the extra effort.
     I see now. That wise architect spent all that time with us because of his experience, not in spite of it.


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