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The Need to Lead People through Change

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Time spent listening to and coaching your team is time well spent.

I was a little bit horrified recently with the contributions made by a number of Lean “experts” to a Linked In discussion I had started about how to sustain Lean improvements. Several suggested that a key first step in deploying and sustaining lean was to identify individuals (particularly in middle management) who were resistant to change and fire them. Then once all the dissenters were gone, change would proceed very nicely!
As you would gather, I do not agree with this approach. People who resist change usually do so for a reason – lack of trust, frustration or a desire to have their input in to the change. If you take the time to listen to these individuals and incorporate their ideas, you will usually get a better outcome. You will also most likely retain these people and gain them as supporters rather than adversaries.
In most organisations we see people fall in to three categories. Around 10% of the workforce are early adopters. These people are eager for change and looking for new challenges. A further 10% are what we would call resistors – highly suspicious, cynical and likely to resist any change. The remaining 80% are “fence sitters”. These people are risk averse and will try and avoid committing themselves until they know whether the change is likely to be permanent or just a passing fad. In my discussion thread one contributor suggested that a first step would be to identify and fire the resistors in order (I assume) to scare the 80% to get off the fence and get on board!
We recommend the opposite approach. When you start to make change you should aim to “push against an open door”. That is, you choose pilot projects that have the maximum changes of success. You should aim to involve the “early adopters” and those people who you think most likely to support and drive the change. The success of these initial projects then energises the “fence sitters”, who come on board with the change. The “resistors” are then left isolated. Most of them will usually then make a decision to get on board or they will leave the business of their own accord.
By taking the opposite approach and “firing the resistors” you take a very grave risk with your business. Often these individuals have very good reasons for their resistance. They may see practical impediments to the proposed change, which if not addressed may do the business harm and cause the change to fail. Taking a hard line with these individuals will not only deny the organisation their input, but will also make others very reluctant to share their concerns over what might be a misguided change initiative. I also believe that businesses in the English speaking world are much too quick to fire employees, particularly managers. Firing staff might seem a quick way to resolve a problem, compared to the difficult and time-consuming process of developing people. However hiring good people to replace those fired is difficult and highly risky and is likely to cost much more.