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.

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Does Deming Still Apply Today?

As we have struggled to keep our momentum going for the past few months, many of us on our management team (I like to think of myself as a part of the team even though I’m just a staff analyst) have been looking at what other organizations have done to complete their turn-arounds and sustain the gains that they have made.  Almost daily now, Fred and I have had deep discussions about what is right and what is wrong at M.E. Burdette Co.  When Jimbo found out about these discussions, he began attending the informal meeting several times a week.

Now many of our managers, who are definitely on board with what we are trying to do as a company, have begun to have similar discussions among themselves.  Several have asked me what I think.  While I’m flattered that they are asking, I still wonder if they really want my opinion or are looking for the scapegoat if this all fails.  However, just the fact that people are talking about how to sustain the gains we’ve made is great.  The discussion wrapped around how to fix those areas that just don’t seem to get it may be even better.  People appear to be really looking around at the whole company now; not just at their little slice of the world.

But as I write this entry today, I am focused on a conversation I had with Sheila Poling at a meeting this week.  After having listened to a couple of our managers debate about Dr. W. Edwards Deming, his Philosophy and his methods, I actually got the opportunity to talk to someone who worked with Deming.  What an honor.  What insight.  What knowledge.

Sheila spent considerable time with Dr. Deming towards the end of his illustrious career.  And while he is still held in much higher regard in Japan than in the United States, his influence on American business cannot be denied.  One 30 minute conversation with Sheila was all it took for me.

I asked a very simple question:  Does Deming and his system of profound knowledge still apply today?  Sheila’s answer was profound.  “What Deming believed and professed is very relevant today.  Should we take his lessons and methods and apply them exactly as Deming did?  Of course not.  The world has changed.  They way we interact with each other in the workplace has changed dramatically over the past 60 years.  But the tenets of Deming’s philosophy are as relevant today as they were in the 1950s and 60s.”

Sheila continued to share her thoughts in an almost professorial manner.   “Deming’s vision of the transformed individual was simple; 1) set a good example, 2) be a good listener, 3) continually teach other people, 4) help people to pull away from their current practices and beliefs and embrace the new ways without guilt.  If he had one flaw as we view his philosophy today it might have been where he professed that you should be a good listener, but do not compromise.  Today’s world and the quest for continuous improvement with an empowered workforce allows for some compromise in order to keep the ball moving forward.”

I ended the conversation by asking Sheila what she thought of what M.E. Burdette Co. was trying to do and about what we had learned from Housholder Sprockets and Max Housholder.  After a brief explanation from me on what we had been through, Sheila responded. “Isn’t what Max brought to the battle for your company strongly embedded in Deming’s 14 points?  Doesn’t it all start with point #1; create constancy of purpose toward improvement while aiming to stay in business?  And then I’d say based upon the cleansing of some management, Fred is strongly committed to point #8; Drive out fear.  And finally, without going through all 14 points, Max’s whole measurement style seems to be based on Deming’s point #10; Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets and substitute leadership.  Getting better each and every day is what’s important.”

As I left my meeting it occurred to me that I had some reading to do.  Deming is just as relevant today as he ever was.  The question is, why are we still not listening to him?

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Struggling with Metrics; Struggling with Change

The better we get, the tougher the journey becomes.

What more can I say about the transformation we are undergoing as a company? Day in and day out I’ve seen, as does our CEO and so many of our managers, the positive change we making as an organization. And yet at the very same time, the pockets of resistance continue to fight back. At times it seems that this resistance is stronger than the momentum for change. Our challenge and the challenge for each of my readers is this: How do we overcome the resistance to cultural change?

What started out as a journey to save our company from financial ruin has evolved to something much more. It is now about changing the culture to succeed long-term. Or has that always been the objective and we (or more appropriately I) did not see it?

In the areas of the M.E. Burdette Co. where the managers jumped on the bus immediately and helped us through the initial financial scare, we seem to do a better job of maintaining the momentum. We appear on the surface anyway to have created true team spirit and a dedication to success and the company. And yet that is not universal.

There are a few departments/teams that once the crisis was over, so was their interest in helping the company ……… in other words they went back to focusing on just their little world.  They appear to be back in step with the naysayers and those managers who appeared from the get-go to be afraid of change.

And I must admit that even Fred Schmidt, CEO and myself have dropped the ball at times.  Fred has canceled several meetings over the past few months which were intended to support our journey.  And as for me, I have not blogged about these topics often enough to keep the issues fresh in people’s minds.

Until this mindset is part of our everyday life, I/We must demand that everyone (including myself) keep their metrics up-to-date.  Our workforce MUST see and understand how they are doing on a daily basis and how they tie into the overall KPIs of the company. 

There MUST be a way to get us through this roadblock we have hit!

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Insights from Massachusetts

Wow! Got to spend a week in Massachusetts and attend one of the best operational excellence conferences I have ever been to. The NE Shingo Prize Conference in Worcester was really good. Jim Womack was the opening keynote speaker. And the time spent over those two days just got better.

Mr. Womack started off talking about the very same things that I’ve been disussing with my boss, Fred Schmidt, and writing about in this blog. What you measure is so critically important. Get it right and things go well. Get it wrong and prepare to struggle.

Womack touched on another point that addresses a really big question I had ever since I read the book Learning to See by Mike Rother and John Shook. How do you make the concept of a value stream manager really work since you so often cut across vertical silos in an organization? Mr. Womack minced no words on this subject. I interpreted what he said as this:

The idea of a value stream manager is wrong. Doesn’t work. How many companies have you seen use this idea and actually make it work? The answer: not many, if any at all. What we need are value stream leaders. We need people to stand up and say “I know I’m not accountable for the entire value stream since it includes these other parts of the company. BUT, I will make sure it works. I will be the responsible one to ensure success.”

So how is that different? Simple, it requires someone with some authority to lead the value stream . Where many companies have tried to use a respected employee to monitor the process and tell those in authority when there is a problem, this idea of a value stream leader changes that entire mindset. You have to have someone with the “pull” to take responsibility and lead those employees working in the value stream to success.  What a great take-away.  This ought to start a few discussions.

Now its back to the salt mines at M.E. Burdette Co.  We’re struggling right now trying to get our key metrics to stick in some parts of the company. I think I need to visit with Chris or Max on this before too long.

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I’m going to Massachusetts!


After all the hard work we have been doing working on our key metrics, I am finally getting a break in September.  Fred has asked if I would like to attend the NE Shingo Prize Conference in Worcester, MA September 25-26, 2012.

James Womack is one of the keynote speakers.  And, I get to hear Mark Nash from Pelco Products, Inc. and Pinnacle Partners discuss his journey at Pelco as they realized that they needed a better way to measure success.  Mark has co-authored 3 books on continuous improvement, including The Right Measures (the story of my company).

Please join me in Worcester.  For more information see

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Stay Focused Over Time…. or you will drift

We spent all day Friday with the management team reviewing our progress to date.  What started out as a two-hour meeting turned into an all day affair as it became obvious that several areas had begun to revert back to their old ways.  Once Fred realized what was going on, He told everyone to clear their schedules so we could work on maintaining our new culture.

The message throughout the day was consistent and direct.  Fred truly led today.  Not once did he demand that any manager do anything.  He simply asked the important questions that needed to be asked and didn’t let up until it appeared that managers were back on board.  He wasn’t tough or intimidating.  Just unrelenting and focused.

Nearly every conversation Fred had with the various managers started the same way.  “I can see what you’re measuring and reporting.  That’s the easy part.  But, we need to have that tough discussion again.  Remember we value what we measure and we measure what is important.  So… What is important to the company?  What makes us successful?  How does what you are measuring tie into the things that make us successful?”

Over and over again, Fred led managers through the exercise.  After he had discussed it with each manager he felt was off target, he broke out the chart we had been working on. The purpose of the chart is to remind managers from time to time how everything works together.  Fred originally wanted the chart to help new managers understand what we are attempting to do.  But as he received more and more comments about it from existing managers, the purpose expanded.

The chart below shows how the KPIs of the organization drive everything we measure.  Once the KPIs are set, then you start developing key metrics that feed them at each level. Every level of the company sets their metrics so that the key metrics feed the key metrics of the levle above them until you feed them into the KPIs of the company.

So to recap Fred’s lesson:

Remember, we value what we measure.  We measure what is important.  It all starts at the top with our KPIs.  Going downstream from there, the key metrics at each level must tie into the key metrics at the level above.  You don’t need many key metrics at any level; only two, three or maybe even four.  It doesn’t mean you won’t measure other things to help the employees know how successful they are on an individual level.  It just means that what we report upstream to measure the overall success of the company are limited.

So…… stay focused and remember what the strategy is.  If you lose this focus, it is possible that you will drift or slip back into old habits.

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Change is the Only Constant

In our journey to find measurements with meaning, we must remember that the playing field is always changing.  That is the only thing that we can be assured of….. Life happens and things change.  We MUST continuously evaluate what we measure and how we measure it.  Find your tape measure.  Don’t make it difficult!  Enjoy the journey…

—Narvell T. Mann

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