I often think about the losses corporations and government entities take on with initiatives that result in decorative shelfware (the unused products that sit on a buyer’s shelf). There must be millions of great ideas and intelligent business plans just sitting on shelves because of the lack of execution. For all we know the solutions to world peace and hunger are sitting on a shelf somewhere waiting for the right time, the right person or the right moment to execute.  But is that really what it takes? Isn’t the right time when momentum is hot? Aren’t the right people those that supported the project or initiative?

Where Is the Implementer?

I am not going to sit here and play out each possible scenario of who is to blame or why the hours of hard work went wasted. I am going to, however, pose a question, “Why is it that out of the hundreds of project I’ve talked about, read about or have been engaged in, there is rarely ever a guy known as ‘The Implementer?”

Sure we have installation folks who are there to install the software or system. Or even the team that comes in to train on the new way of doing business. But where is the guy whose job it is to make sure this new way gets truly adopted?

There are a countless number of times when change is implemented and the process owners responsible for the long-term adoption of the change cannot sustain it. The reasons why vary. Some may not have the skills, the management capability or the discipline to sustain the change. And unfortunately, when making an investment in a change initiative, the hired hand to support the true adoption of change is the cost that organizations tend to overlook or think they can do without.

The problem is that there are times when a change initiative relies heavily on people to support the process. The need to minimize costs of capital investments or automation makes it so that processes require change in worker and management behaviors to support the tools and improvement. It is times like these when bringing in a hired hand to install the change is critical.

Installing Behaviors

When I first started my consulting career, I worked with a boutique firm that specialized in the “installation of behaviors.” The concept of the installation of behaviors is based on the approach that in addition to process improvements and the implementation of tools, organizations must instill in their personnel the habit of the new practices to sustain the process changes. Back then, having made a career move from the banking industry into the world of management consulting, the vernacular didn’t mean much to me. It wasn’t until the fall of 2007 when it came to light.

We were working on a process improvement project. Our goal was to implement processes and systems to help reduce the cycle time of a power generation manufacturer. It was a full scope project, meaning that we assessed the organization as a whole, each division, group, process and function. We were working across divisions with resources dedicated to process and system reengineering as well as a change management program. The client dedicated resources to the project in the form of a task team that was engaged from project inception through implementation. Despite the high-level of client engagement and among one of the best change management programs I’ve seen, there was still a lot of pain in adopting the change.

Human behavior is funny at times. When it comes to change, everyone can agree it’s a good idea until it’s their turn to do something different.

To help the front line managers and staff adopt the changes implemented, the project team (including the client task team) worked individually with the front line managers to coach them through the changes. We were practically their shadows. We met with them multiple times a day to walk them through the processes and guide them through the use of the new tools and systems. We were adamant on not doing the work for them, though – it was their change to own.

Because the changes required adjustments in behavior to support the new tools and systems, our team became the change catalysts. Our project team of four and the client task team of seven (11 in total) coached a total of approximately 25 project managers and team leads. For four out of the six months we were assigned on this project were primarily dedicated to the shadowing and coaching of management staff to adopt the change. The client and our project team were dedicated to making sure the changes would stick, and stick it did. By the end of year one, the client was able to realize approximately $3 million in savings on improved schedule performance and deliveries.

In short, to ensure that the new ways truly got adopted, we made sure to leverage all of our available resources to install the critical behaviors through coaching to sustain the changes implemented. This is the key to sustainable change and ensuring that all the analyses, studies, and recommendations make a true long-term impact and not sit on a shelf.

The level of installation effort varies depending on the type of changes made, the size of the organization and the culture of the organization. Regardless, creating the habit of performance with an intensive change management effort like the one described here is the only way to guarantee that the savings go above and beyond the targets. Our goal shouldn’t just be about employing change, it should be sustaining change and building a culture of improvement.

Return on Investment

Naturally there are costs associated with this level of effort. From my experience, however, I have seen Fortune 500 manufacturers easily make a three-to-one return on their investment, in the forms of savings and increased productivity within a 12-month span. Going beyond controls and incorporating a rigorous behavioral change program into any Six Sigma or Lean initiative is the proven anti-shelfware formula. My question now is, with this information available, why are organizations minimizing the impact of their improvement initiatives by not making the investment in leveraging the change and improvement experts to install changes in the behaviors of their personnel? This is a question that I am sure will haunt us for years to come. For now, maybe I start by trying figuring out why my wife buys clothes she will never wear…the other shelfware.

Author’s note: The work discussed in this blog was completed at an organization earlier in his career. 

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