Leading Change When Operations Can't Stop

Organizational change is unavoidable. Change is everywhere and it impacts everyone – whether it’s a new operational procedure that requires employees to adopt new processes, changes in the regulatory landscape, or a revision of the organization’s culture to better address customer needs.

I recently worked with two clients to execute change management agendas for their operations. Both initiatives were done in unique, high-risk operating environments, and while we felt as if we were living the proverbial “fix the car as it speeds down the freeway” scenario, many great lessons were learned.

Discussing the future state is where the fun is, but it is imperative to the wellbeing of your people and customers to balance change with what your people need to accomplish in the moment. This can be tricky. When it’s not done well, mistakes can happen and can lead to negative health consequences for employees and customers. So how do you master focusing on order fulfillment while also reaching for a best-in-class future state of operational excellence?

When leaders roll out an operations change initiative, they’re excited. They’ve been researching, planning, and discussing that change ad nauseam. But finalizing the new plan isn’t the end of their work. It’s just the start! Migrating from the current to the new is a big task, and the stakes are high. To help those leading this type of work, here are a few reminders to keep operations running smoothly amid change. After all, while changes and the future state get all the attention, our people and customers need us today.

Four Ways to Keep Things Moving as the New Replaces the Old

Tip #1: Focus on safety.

In times of significant change, everything starts feeling unfamiliar, and it becomes easy to make mistakes that can threaten a safe working environment. New operating conditions tend to include new processes that require new documentation, which may divert attention from your present surroundings.

When changes focus on improving safety, leaders and managers should keep the “change story” simple so people can stay focused on the task at hand. The world is full of irrelevant information. Tell your story using only impactful, relevant information – and tell it concisely. Talk about the stuff that will hit home with your people, including the information that explains the necessity of the changes.

And combat complacency! It’s easy for longtime employees to think, “I’ve been doing this for years and have never gotten hurt.” But there’s a first time for everything.

Tip #2: Emphasize quality.

When change is being implemented, it’s easy for our brains to feel “cluttered” (which is why it’s so important to keep safety top of mind – see Tip #1). The organizational structure and reporting routes can start to feel cluttered, too. Ever heard someone say, “Who reports to whom now?” Maintaining high quality standards starts with keeping communication routes open. When employees, who are the eyes and ears of an organization, notice something that threatens quality, they need to know who to talk to. Knowing how to “communicate up” quality concerns is something that can never fall through the cracks.

No matter what changes are in progress, quality can never suffer. Quality issues lead to customer issues, which will threaten the existence of the desired future state you’re striving for. Motivate employees to stay focused on quality while adopting to change by sharing customer impact stories and making employees feel proud of how they serve. Try being creative with how you engage people’s intellect and emotions. And please don’t use equations, especially ones that include lots of sigmas.

Tip #3: Communicate!

Communicate with customers about why your changes will be good for them. Your customers will hear about changes, your competitors will look to capitalize on your redirection, and everyone will wonder, “What’s going on?” Amid all of this chatter, it’s important to keep your employees in the know regarding the “why,” “what,” and “how” of your changes. Remember that employees also talk to the competition. Ensure that they have the opportunity to ask questions and voice their concerns. If you don’t have a work environment that welcomes honest feedback, you can bet your people will be discussing their fears and grievances in the halls and bathrooms. People talk. Your changes will benefit most if you create a forum to work out issues together.

It’s also smart to find a good rallying cry, such as: “It’s for the patients!” or, “It’s for our community!” Keep it simple.

Tip #4: Maintain physical security.

A culture of discipline is a must when it comes to physical security. A friend who has left the company may show up and want access to the building. Badges and sign-in sheets requirements may be tempting to bypass. Maintaining a secure environment requires discipline from every employee. People know the security protocols but may break them when it’s a friend who is asking. Changes can create frustration, and frustration can lead to workplace incidents that can threaten people and property. Workplace incidents will never be completely eliminated, but managers do have tools to protect employees from intentional harm caused by a frustrated person. Remember to explore them early and often, and relentlessly drive a culture of security discipline.

Yes, You Can Maintain Current Operations Amid Change

Changing any aspect of your operations is never easy. People want to feel confident and comfortable when it comes to their daily responsibilities. Asking them to adopt new policies or procedures is sure to cause discord, fear, and pushback. Mitigate issues by making safety, quality, and communications your top priorities. Before you know it, the future state will become everyone’s current state.

October 2, 2019


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