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Communicating Change To The Outside

Thu, 09/06/2012 - 8:00am
Alan Nicol, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions

As we make improvements to our business and our processes, not only must we effectively communicate our new expectations to our own personnel, but we must also communicate to our service providers and often our customers.

If you read my posts, then you know that I believe a successful process improvement or business improvement results from changing our behavior. Well, if we are going to be changing our behavior, shouldn’t we warn those people and organizations with whom we work that we are doing so? Of course we should.

Unfortunately, explaining that we are on a quest of self-improvement, describing the methodology we are using, and demonstrating how it is working is neither easy to do with an outside agency, nor is it necessarily received with interest. When it is received with skepticism, it can be discouraging or embarrassing. So, why would we invite such unpleasantness upon ourselves?

There is also the consideration that it really isn’t the business of people or agencies outside of our own what we do, or how we do it. Why should we feel like we must explain ourselves?

Lastly, sometimes it takes all of our thought and energy to focus on our own issues and improvements. We just don’t think about how our business partners or customers might react. Certainly we hope that they will notice our improved performance, but what about how we act?

The reason we should communicate outside of our own group is that, whether we consider it or not, our behavior will change as our improvements take hold. The people we work with or work for will notice the difference in behavior. As they notice the difference they will respond. It is in our own interests to guide the response to our behavioral change.

Granted, a small change to our production processes for more efficiency doesn’t manifest a significant behavioral change. Maybe it just means that one assembler now performs two operations instead of one or uses a different tool or fixture than before. That’s not something to make a big deal about.

However, what about changing our assembly philosophy so that a single assembler completes the entire assembly of a product unit and the unit is marked or coded with the assembler’s identity? That is a change that will drive behavior. Now assemblers can no longer hide behind a fog of shared culpability and anonymity. If there is a problem with a unit everyone will know.

It’s a great way to drive improved quality and its impact on production speed is often negligible. It enables reward and recognition for excellent assembly performance and mentoring for those who need it.

So why should anyone who is not part of the assembly process care? Well, when an assembler is held responsible for the quality of the assembly and the product, they will be more sensitive to upstream processes. If the kits they receive are not done properly it will affect their time and performance metrics. If the design is difficult to assemble, or parts don’t fit properly, you better believe that the assemblers will have some feedback for the engineers or manufacturers.

How do you want the upstream functions and personnel to respond to the feedback from the assemblers? Do you want them to fight back and take a defensive position, or do you want them to acknowledge the opportunity to improve performance and make adjustments to enable better performance?

Sometimes, “outside” really means that people are out of our organization’s purview of influence or control. Many companies, large or small, contract functional service rather than run special skills themselves. Some of us contract out our logistics and distribution, our manufacturing, our legal department, or even our human resources expertise. In some cases we may get to dictate how we want things done, but sometimes we cannot.

Suppose that we are adopting a Six Sigma style of improvement and management philosophy and we will be monitoring the statistical variation of important processes. This means that we will be asking for data, in specific forms, from all of those processes. Also, when we decide that we want less variation from one of them, we need to be able to make such happen.

When we discuss improvements or changes with a contracted logistical service, will they resist and explain that they are the experts and it is not appropriate for us to request that they change the way they do things? Do we really want to have to threaten them with losing our business in order to compel them to play along?

The above are some examples of the kinds of difficult discussions or problems that many progress-making organizations face when we make improvements or start changing culture or behavior. These problems can be mitigated with agencies outside of our own in a similar way to how we mitigate them inside of our organization; by communicating proactively.

If we are driving culture, process, and behavior change effectively inside of our organization, then certainly we are actively communicating our expectations, our changes, and describing the new behaviors that we deem appropriate. Inside of our own organizations we can say how we expect people to behave. However, when we communicate to organizations or people outside of our purview, we cannot expect, but we can request.

I find that managing outsiders’ expectations is the best way to invite their cooperation for changes we are making. We don’t need to make long, uninteresting presentations with grand explanations. What works best is to simply and concisely explain what new behaviors we are adopting, how our outside partners are likely to observe them, that we believe they are improving our performance, and that we will need our outsiders’ cooperation to succeed.

We do not need to explain why we believe what we do. Reflecting on the considerations above about what business it is of others what we do, we are entitled to our beliefs and professionalism demands that our decisions are our own business. If an outsider is genuinely interested in how we are accomplishing our improvements and ask us to share, that’s great. We don’t have to justify our decisions though.

When we proactively warn our business partners that we are going to do things differently and that our success will depend upon their cooperation, we effectively do several things:

We warn them that change is occurring so they aren’t surprised or reflexively take a defensive posture.

We set an expectation that we change and, therefore, engage them as another monitor of our progress – they expect it and so they end up demanding it of us.

We politely remind them that we are all in business together and it is in our mutual interest that our improvements succeed – and since they serve us in some way they are responsible to help us instead of resist.

We give them time to get over the natural emotional response of fear of change so that by the time our improvements are taking effect, they are ready to play along rather than reticent to participate.

Disclosure drives trust and cooperation – perceptions of secrets drive alienation and resistance.

Let me share an example from my own experience. Without giving too much background, I became the manager of a small engineering team and learned that one behavior that would drive improved team success was to increase communications between my design team and the manufacturing teams. Designs were not always optimized for manufacturability.

After getting agreement from the design team that we would engage the manufacturing team for input and feedback to our designs, I went and spoke with the manager of the manufacturing group. He laughed at me when I told him my engineers would be interrupting his personnel more often and inviting them to design reviews. I don’t think he believed me, but he passed on the “threat” to his team as I requested.

After enough time had passed, and enough reminders were given for my engineers to demonstrate success, I began to investigate. I asked them whom they had consulted and if they were getting the cooperation they needed. I got mixed answers. I also went to my counterpart manufacturing manager again and asked for his opinion about whether my team was consulting his. He acknowledged that they had.

With some continued expectation setting and cooperation from the manufacturing group, it soon became habit for the two teams to be working together on product designs. It didn’t have to go that way. The manufacturing team could have very easily told us to “buzz off” and mind our own business because they had their own work to do without us asking them to do ours too.

Years later that manufacturing manager recalled to me the time we met when I appeared in his office to discuss cooperation between our teams. He admitted that he didn’t expect to see me again or for our teams to cooperate. He also confessed that I got his attention when they did. To this day he remains my mentor and friend.

Don’t forget to communicate your change efforts outside of your own organization. Don’t be afraid to admit that you are going to try something new. Let your outside partners know what to expect and tell them what kind of cooperation you need. You don’t need to justify yourself or feel embarrassed.

Communicating proactively to your outside community can mean the difference between success and failure for your internal changes. This is because real change comes with behavioral change and there is no hiding that from those with whom we work. It is best to disclose and set expectations than to keep it internal. Disclosure promotes trust and cooperation. Perceptions of secrecy drive resentment, alienation, and resistance.

Take a look at the changes you are driving today. Do you have outside players that will notice? Have you told them what to expect? Have you asked for their indulgence? If not do so.

Stay wise, friends.

If you like what you just read, find more of Alan’s thoughts at www.bizwizwithin.com.

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