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Understanding the Impacts of Change

As improvement project leaders, Belts can sometimes lose track of an important factor in the success of a project: the impact that any changes stemming from the project will have on the stakeholders. As they rush quickly into data collection and employ tools such as failure mode and effects analysis, cause and effect matrix and analysis of variance, Belts need to include some time to step back and consider what really happens during the potential changes suggested by their improvement efforts.

Whether they are streamlining the steps in a shipping process, mistake-proofing a series of complex transactions, reducing the quantity of defective screws produced by the machine shop, or developing the mission of the new sales department, Belts are almost always impacting someone. As change agents, they must develop and drive change, but they must also recognize the effect of these changes on staff and think about what can be done to create a positive environment. A failure to consider the human and personal impacts of change is one of the major reasons projects can derail, especially in the critical Improve and Control phases of the DMAIC roadmap.

Emotional Push-back

When people are faced with a significant change in their personal or professional lives, they often go through similar stages of emotion. Usually, they initially react in a negative manner.

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Think back to your own career. If you are “fortunate” enough, you may have lived through an organizational downsizing. When called into your boss’ office and told that your department is being “consolidated” into the office across the country, your natural reaction is not “Oh boy, I get the chance to have my career move in a completely different direction. What a great opportunity, and it’s best for the company too!” What you’re likely thinking, of course, is “Oh no, not again! Can’t these people ever make up their minds? I just changed jobs last year!”

This initial reaction and hesitancy is even common in people’s domestic lives. What if your teenaged son walks in and says, “Guess what? I have decided to drop out of high school and go join a rock band! It is what I really want to do, and I know I will be successful.” Well, Mick Fleetwood did just that, which led to a pretty successful role in Fleetwood Mac. But, I doubt that is what is on your mind as a parent. As humans, it is quite natural to resist change.

What is the implication for Lean Six Sigma project managers? To be most successful, Belts must recognize that people are emotionally affected by their project efforts and may need some help to ensure that their initial “push-back” does not lead to project derailment. Even with proper control feedbacks in place (e.g., control charts, action plans and escalation procedures), there is still a great chance that individuals may not get on board with new processes or procedures and cause problems in the future.

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A Time for Transition

In his book, Managing Transitions (Da Capo Press, 2003), William Bridges proposes the concept that there is a distinct difference between a change event and the associated emotional transition that takes place as a result of the event. A change event is physical – it can be drawn on a chart, listed on a timeline or shown on a process map. A transition is something entirely different; it is the emotional reaction to change that happens as people move from their current situation to some future state. Like everything else, this transition is a time-based process.

As improvement managers, Belts want people to move as quickly and smoothly as possible to a new level of performance, where they are able to work without unnecessary conflict, anger or other negative behaviors. As Bridges highlights, people must move emotionally from the comfortable, well-known condition of their current emotional state to a new beginning. During this journey, they must pass through an intermediate emotional “neutral zone,” where some of the accepted methods and relationships are changed. Depending on the size and scope of the change for each individual, this step can present itself as a minor blip or it can manifest as an apparent crisis of large magnitude. In effect, the person living through change is going through a grieving process, in which they give up the old and eventually embrace the new. Luckily, there are things that can be done to help speed this process.

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In the example of the would-be teen idol above, the transition is the way the parent feels and reacts internally to the son’s announcement. If the son were properly trained in the art of change management, he might have started by listing out the urgent needs driving him to drop out of school (the why), the people with whom he had consulted about the change (the who), the first steps he planned to take (the what) and whether this change was to occur immediately or at the end of the current semester (the when). The implementation of this change would go much better for the son if he allowed the parent more time to process and acknowledge these plans, rather than simply announcing them the night before the change was to be executed.

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There are similar forces in the workplace. A person reacting to a change in work procedures might have the initial thought, “What does this mean for me?” That is not selfish behavior; it is just the way people are made. They might also wonder what is going to happen to their friends and colleagues. However, if people know why they am being asked to do this new thing, when is it going to take place, who is involved with this change and how they are supposed to do it, then they are much more likely to give the new process a fair try. If a person also is given a chance to express any concerns or fears that they may have (in an open and non-threatening way), then they also will be less inclined to push back and resist. If there is a mechanism in place for them to express feedback, viewpoints and concerns in a positive manner, then they are less likely to react negatively.

Steps Toward Acceptance

Fortunately, there are relatively simple ways for Belts to make their projects more successful:

  • Address the “why” – Create information campaigns to include specific rationale for the change to come, and be sure to include staff who may be affected. Harness the powers of well-respected individuals to help reinforce the importance of the project.
  • Anticipate concerns – Think ahead and develop a frequently-asked-questions document that addresses possible anxieties about the planned change.
  • Communicate – Hold personal meetings or conference calls with groups of people to tell them what is going to happen, when it is going to happen and what they will need to do. Keep talking about the “why” as a motivator.
  • Encourage feedback – Give people a mechanism to express their thoughts and concerns about the proposals. Message boards, emails and small meetings can all be effective.
  • Provide status updates – Maintain an emphasis on the why, what, when and how of the upcoming change.
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The use of these communication and interpersonal skills can be just as important as the myriad other useful Lean Six Sigma tools Belts have at their disposal. By thinking about the impact of personal and emotional transitions from their improvement projects, Belts can ensure faster completion and more positive long-term outcomes.

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