So Why Don’t Process Changes Stick?

As I sit here this afternoon, I am deep in thought.  Not just about M.E. Burdette Co. and what we are trying to accomplish in our journey; but in a more general sense about every organization out there that is struggling to change.  The one single thought that keeps coming back to me is….. “Why don’t process changes made in most organizations stick?”

The more I ponder the question, the bigger it seems to get.  To find the answer, and explain it thoroughly would probably take days, if not weeks.  But I can at least share my thoughts based on what I have learned on our journey.  Partly my thoughts are reflections of what I have seen and heard here at M.E. Burdette.  But, a large piece of my explanation comes from the NIST/MEP Lean 101 class I attended some time ago.

Change can be hard.  I think we all know that.  But in today’s business environment if we don’t stay ahead of the game; if we don’t keep growing our market share; if we don’t keep improving the bottom line, we are in big trouble.  The problem is that many employees just do not understand this!  And from what I have seen and heard, it really doesn’t matter how well or how often you try to drive the need home, some employees just won’t come around.

Employees who don’t want to change fall into several categories.  1) Power and/or control; and 2) Fear.  Absolutely there are other categories or sub-categories, but these are the ones that I constantly hear good leaders talking about.  They look for ways to get past these two issues.

Power and Control

First, let’s talk about the Power/control factor.  There are, and always will be, those employees who feel like their ability to do a task empowers them.  If they are the only one who can do the task, they are important.  They are important to the company, and more importantly, to the boss.  If no one else can do the task, they are in control.  They can be the hero when things fall apart, since they are the only one that knows how to do the work.

It doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong with their thought process here.  It is what it is, and perception is reality. ( I think I’ve said that before)  This type of thinking creates a false sense of security for the employee.   Quite often the results are disastrous for the company and the employee.

Talking to Jimbo in Engineering, as well as to our instructor from Lean 101, Mark Nash, and Sheila Poling from last month’s blog, I’ve learned a few things.  We have to get these employees back to reality.  Mark says that you can’t just pull the rug out from under them either.  You must work equally as hard at getting them to see the flaw in their ways.  If discussion and debate don’t bring them to the table, then you must alter the world in which they work.  Start a cross-training program to create multi-skilled employees.  Start with these “stubborn” employees and have them learn another employee’s work.  Fill up their time so that they must start teaching someone else how to do these tasks that they covet so much.  Through this process you may have to “talk down” about the importance of the task from which you are trying to wean them.

Mark says you most likely will have to be creative.  Sheila says that as you start the process of cross-training with these employees you may want to appeal to their sense of right, wrong and the goals of the business by going back to Deming and his 14 points.  Or you may try getting the employee’s feedback on where empowerment is lacking.  In other words, make them part of the solution.


“What do you mean fear?  What are the employees afraid of?  We’ve already said no one would get fired.”  I’ve already heard these phrases several times in my young professional career.  So why are employees afraid?  Mark explained it this way to me:

Employees are afraid for three different reasons… 1) They think you will change the job and they won’t be able to do it anymore so they will get fired; 2) They think you will change the job so much that they are not needed anymore and that then you will eliminate their job (lay them off); and 3) They have an irrational fear of change.  They live in a world where they want nothing to change – ever!

The first two reasons require that you repeatedly show the workforce your commitment to them.  “Yes, you can do this.  No, I will not stop working with you until you can do it on your own.  No, you will not get fired.  No you will not be laid off.  If we eliminate the position through creating a new process, we will find you a new position within the company that you are qualified to do.”  These are the correct things to say, but it takes time.  This is a repetitive process, and employees who hold this type of fear are looking for reassurance.  The only way to give them this reassurance is through action and example.  And it can take a tremendous amount of time.  But, when they see repeated examples of commitment to the workforce, most will calm down and slowly rejoin the team.

The irrational fear employee is a much harder problem.  Not nearly as big, but harder.  Often, these are very dedicated long time employees who are an asset to the organization.  It doesn’t matter what you say or do.  They don’t want change to happen.  They want things the exact same way they were in 1974.  “Oh how things were so much simpler then.  Why can’t we just keep doing it the way I always have?”  For these employees, the word is patience.

You will not change them overnight.  They typically do not listen to reason, or facts, or anything else.  With the “irrational fear” personality, you must muscle them through one day at a time.  You must make the changes and then assign someone to work with them daily to ensure that they don’t revert back to old ways.  You must listen to their concerns and then assure them that it will be better.  Slowly, but surely, the new way will become the old way to them.  And yes, along the way you may lose a few to retirement, quitting, or self-destruction.  It’s not easy and often it is a painful experience for everyone involved.

Mark reminded me that you should only resort to “change the employee, or change the employee” tactics as a last resort.  The chaos created by terminating an employee may only make it harder with the rest of the team.  Use peer pressure, cross-training, participatory decision making.  Whatever it takes. Keep the ball moving and try to get employees to understand why change MUST happen.

Mark, Sheila, Jimbo?  I hope our management team at M.E. Burdette has learned a thing or two from the discussion on this topic this past month.  I hope that we have a better understanding of what we must do to change.  I hope that we can make good change to those processes that need improvement.  But, what I really wonder about is….. will these changes stick?   Have we learned enough to make them stick?  I guess time will tell.


About narvelltmann

Currently working first job out of college as a cost analyst for M.E. Burdette Co.
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