There are many stories written about successful top-down change, but few about successful middle-out change – probably because the latter is much more difficult to achieve than the former. Sometimes, however, middle-out change is the only option – and with the right leader, success is possible. The following story, which took place at a North American-based publicly traded company, serves as an example.

The company in this example operated more as a collection of autonomous business units than a unified corporation. C-level executives were reluctant to impose any top-down changes; instead, significant changes were dictated and led by the individual business units. Changes were few, however, because the company had been successful since its inception and its leaders were entrenched in the belief that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

That is, until one mid-level visionary saw potential in deploying Lean Six Sigma (LSS). He believed the company could use the method to achieve its aggressive growth goals over the next five years. Despite the lack of support from corporate leadership, this vice president (VP) decided to lead the change from the middle-out. He piloted LSS in his area and eventually coordinated a gradual, company-wide rollout. In less than two years the company realized a 7:1 return on its LSS investment.

His story holds valuable lessons for anyone working as an internal or external change agent, where control and authority are limited. For those in this position, here are seven approaches and techniques – based on this VP’s experience – for turning the flywheel in an organization where senior leadership is not mandating, or even supporting, a Six Sigma adoption.

1. Take Advantage of Available Control

Middle-out organizational change requires a Champion just as strong – if not stronger – than for top-down change. In this case, the Champion was the VP, who was head of the company’s quality organization. Because he had control over his organization, he could treat the pilot LSS deployment as if it were a top-down approach. He did not need to employ many change tools in order to get people to embrace LSS and when the deployment was underway he was able to adjust as necessary to ensure success in his area.

2. Choose Pilot Locations Wisely

Because the VP owned his deployment in his area, he had control over the outcomes. When he was ready to bring LSS to the rest of the organization, however, he had to choose wisely which area would be next.

Selecting the area that had the greatest financial opportunity or was the greatest pain point in the organization was tempting, but he made a better choice by taking into consideration each area’s leadership. With a middle-out change, he needed to select areas led by other early adopters and risk takers.

The VP looked for leaders who had led change successfully in the organization before. He found the people who were the first to embrace a new way of doing things – those who were open-minded to new ideas and supported, not punished, risk taking in their areas. Deploying in these areas increased the chances of success, even though immediate payback from deployment may have been greater in other areas.

3. Learn from Mistakes

An experienced change agent should constantly reevaluate and reinvent any initiative as it progresses. After piloting the deployment in his area, the VP learned what went well and what could have gone better. He prepared a communication plan – essentially a public relations campaign – to demonstrate the value of the deployment and clearly define what could have gone better. He also explained how the organization as a whole could learn from the experience.

4. Speak the Right Language

When he crafted communications about the deployment, the VP made sure that the language was in terms that the leaders could understand. Because most leaders respond well to communications based on financials, the VP framed the results of the pilot in the context of the organization’s profit and loss statement.

One of the business-unit leaders, however, did not respond to that approach because he felt the financial impact numbers looked small compared to his total business. This called for an alternative explanation. The VP graphically mapped different LSS projects and how they affected – individually and as an aggregate – the business-unit leader’s value chain. This way, the leader could see the big picture: Many small LSS projects add up to make a sizable impact.

5. Develop Approaches to Resistance

Middle-out change leaders may run into more resistance than top-down leaders simply because they have less authority. In this case, the VP encountered two types of resistance: technical (people who lacked the skills or tools to implement the desired changes) and political (people reluctant to embrace change imposed from the outside).

Of the two, technical resistance was easier to overcome. The VP understood that people do not want to look bad or fail in front of their peers or superiors, so his plans defined specific technical training and provided opportunities for participants to learn and practice the new skills.

He experienced unexpected resistance, however, when some people were unwilling to attend training. These people felt the current delivery model took up too much of their time. Therefore, the VP and his team revised the training into a series of multiple three- to four-hour sessions spread over several weeks, for a total of less than three days of training; the training’s content and overall contact time remain unchanged. Not only was this new schedule easier for the participants to adhere to, but it also paced the learning better so that participants were not as overwhelmed. The team made sure that participants would find value in each session so that they would be willing to invest time in the next session.

With technical resistance under control, the VP could focus on political issues – and in an organization built around largely autonomous business units, political resistance was nearly inevitable. It surfaced when the second wave trainees began to feel they did not have control over their own deployments. To fight this, the VP included the leaders of the new areas in all learning, planning and execution sessions. The more opportunities they had to provide input or feedback, the more engaged and supportive these leaders became.

6. Avoid the “My Way or the Highway” Mentality

After the VP included them in the planning process, some new leaders still insisted on taking their own approach toward deployment. Even though these approaches did not seem right, the VP let the leaders do it their way. Sometimes their approaches worked out better, and everyone was happy. When they did not work, the VP helped the leaders incorporate the lessons learned into the plan and re-launch.

7. Work One-on-One

Getting even the early adopters and innovators to participate still gave the VP some challenges. As a mid-level employee, he did not want to appear dictatorial or demand compliance. Therefore, he made any interventions or sessions one-on-one. Meeting with participants in their offices and selling the LSS concept – exploring both the “what’s in it for me” and “what’s at risk for me” angles – was effective.

Middle-out: A Viable Option

Few people would volunteer to lead a middle-out change initiative if top-down support is available. But early adopters or innovators investigating new ways of improving quality, reducing costs, growing revenues or achieving all of these benefits at once may run into situations where they have no other option. Fortunately, as this example shows, with a strong infrastructure, a well developed training program and engaged leadership, middle-out change is achievable.

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