Getting results – change can be a rocky road

To get different results of any kind, we need to make changes. As human beings we are very good at change, but not so good at “being changed”. If we want it, it will happen. If we don’t want it, we will resist.

Physical asset performance is a result of having a robust and reliable design to begin with, the right maintenance executed the right way, and operation within the assets’ performance limits. In an existing operation, the design is fixed already. Maintenance and operations however, are not, and can often be improved, usually with considerable effort. That effort however, can be well worth it.

Payback comes in the form of maintenance savings (20% is typical) – largely because most organizations have a lot of room to improve in their maintenance programs and processes, and as revenue increases from added asset capacity and availability. Combined the value of those can be huge. Payback from maintenance process improvement can be slow, but payback from reviewing the maintenance program can often begin in the first year. Those quicker benefits often cover much more than the costs of the entire change program.

The companies that achieve the most have managed to embrace change. They wanted it – at all levels, albeit for varying reasons.

Their perceptions of whatever pain they associated with the change was less than the perceived pain associated with the status quo. The benefit might be great, or significant “pain” might be removed, or both. For example, if imminent closure or bankruptcy would put the workforce out of work, they are likely to be very open to change. That sort of “motivation” is known as a burning platform.

If the change program is desired by senior management solely to improve profitability, then it is unlikely to gain much traction with anyone but shareholders. They are usually not the ones who must undergo the change! Shareholder “value” doesn’t motivate most employees. However, if the change will result in safer operations, it is likely to get support from those who suffer the most when things are unsafe – the workers.

There must always be something “in it” for everyone.

Top management (leadership) can initiate change and fund it, but they can’t just expect it to happen because they’ve thrown money and resources at it. They will need to be actively and visibly engaged in the process. Delegating to middle management is a recipe for failure.

Middle management is often a stumbling block to change. There’s a saying that “managers keep the boat steady, leaders rock it”. It’s very true. Middle management, by definition, wants to keep things smooth and steady. For them, change will be disruptive and it could result in poor results. Putting them in charge of it, exposes them to risk of failure. Since they are naturally risk adverse, they tend to be highly resistant to change. Since they are seldom fully onboard with the added risks they usually make poor change leaders.

Their resistance is natural and often a result of systemic factors. Their performance metrics and those of their departments, business processes, their bonus, next raise, next promotion, etc., often depend on sustaining steady performance. Rarely is change in their role descriptions and if it is, they’ll be accustomed to being rewarded for even small, incremental improvements. To them, big change means big risk. Changes in maintenance and operations will touch on other departments like human resources, training, stores, purchasing, safety, etc. Expecting middle managers to manage the complexity on top of their already demanding jobs is simply not realistic. Delegating it to a dedicated project manager who must navigate all those middle level hurdles, is also likely to fail without mechanisms and authority to over-ride the various factors that will systemically sustain the status quo. Middle level management, even senior management (unless they are at the executive/decision-making level), will struggle.

Generally, the leadership level has an easier time to initiate change, simply because they control the purse strings and resources. They can hire the needed outside help, fund training, provide direction, provide coaching for those who struggle with the changes, and they are heard by everyone.

At middle and lower levels of management, they really don’t control very much and as soon as the change requires more than their own department to be involved, they’ll be battling with competing priorities.

We often speak about the importance of our employees, yet we seldom ask for their advice. When advice or suggestions are offered, we seldom listen and act on them. Worse still, we may not even provide feedback as to why. Yet, those people are very important to change initiatives. They will be the ones undergoing most of it, and they are in a position to derail it if they are not fully engaged.

Engaging them in a dialogue, through workshops or other means, and then acting on what you hear, and communicating both honestly and clearly, can go a long way.

In our experience senior level executives often spark substantial change in maintenance and reliability. The business cases are usually substantial and sound. They are quick to decide and support it. At the levels of the workforce, they can often see benefits to working conditions, less wastage of their time and efforts, improved job security, safer practices, and increasingly with a younger workforce, better alignment with personal values.

Middle management is always a challenge. Their aversion to risk coupled with the complexity of changing how things are done while doing them makes for a high level of belief that the change won’t work. Even if they see the need, they are likely to focus more on the barriers and not the solutions.

The middle levels will need to be convinced and shown that it (the change) can and will work. They need the pilot implementations, the countless meetings and opportunities to have their hands all over it. They need to see solutions to whatever glitches will arise, and don’t count on them contributing much to the actual solutions without prodding. They will need encouragement and support. Leadership must support them and actively engage in barrier removal (e.g.: department processes that are in conflict, KPIs that encourage incompatible behaviors).

They may take some of the change as a rebuke for the way they’ve been running things. No one knows what they don’t know, and if they haven’t been exposed to excellence practices before, and have no idea what “good” really looks like, they can’t be faulted. Yet, outsiders (leadership and consultants) will be telling them that things need to improve. Their egos will take that as “you’ve been wrong”. No one likes to be “fixed” so expect resistance. Keeping the outsiders away won’t work either. You will need their perspectives on “good” and how to get there. They are far more expert in change than your staff.

If you want different results, you must change. Change is never easy in an industrial setting. A lot can go wrong, especially if you are attempting to do it all “internally”. Don’t trust it to those who are amateurs at change and very bought into the status quo. Leaders do need to rock the boat.