Supply Chain Performance

Effective Change Management Is Crucial to Your Business

If your business isn’t changing, you’re falling behind. And if you’re falling behind, you’re going out of business.

That’s today’s reality.

Actually, change has always been the reality. It’s just that, years ago, the need to change was so slow-paced it felt nonexistent. Today’s need to change feels more like a daily demand.

Even with our crazy-fast need to change, though, one thing is consistent—our need to manage change effectively. And since that’s now a near-constant, it is crucial to have a defined change management process so you ensure you’re doing it right every time, and that you’re not constantly having to reinvent the wheel.

One change management core principle that will hold true throughout is to involve all stakeholders. Any significant change will affect people well beyond those closest to the problem, so figure out early how you involve all those affected, and who will play what part. Why? because while few can say yes to greenlighting a project almost everyone can say no which leads to delays and failed projects. Said another way, not everybody can be a central decision-maker, but everyone can at least have the opportunity to provide input throughout the process. Determining how to mobilize key stakeholders will be essential to your success.

That includes even folks outside your organization. Suppliers and customers, for example, are central players who will also be affected by significant changes within your organization, and may therefore have a part to play as stakeholders in your change management efforts. In our world of supply chain, suppliers in particular, if we’re building the right kinds of relationships, are very likely to be a needed player in managing big changes. That’s why supplier buying is so critical–it creates the collaborative environment required right up front, so when change management is needed, their involvement is beneficial and seeking positive outcomes

Another core principle is constant good communication. Even during a smooth change management process, keeping people up and down the ladder and throughout the organization up to speed is just good business. And remember this valuable bit of advice from a wise old manager: “Bad news ages poorly.”

Let’s get on to the common steps of managing change.

Create the team to identify the problem and find the solution

Just as with staffing a department, clarity of who owns what when it comes to change management is critical to success. While you’re involving all stakeholders along the way, there still has to be a central team that takes ownership and drives the process forward.

Define the problem

It’s not at all unusual for folks to make a serious mistake in managing change right out of the gates (or actually, before they get out of the gates). That is to simply jump to conclusions, and begin by defining the change. Here’s why that’s an error: it can mean treating symptoms rather than the real problem, which means it doesn’t bring resolution.

Defining the problem accurately and thoroughly is essential to success. Regardless what kind of problem you’re trying to solve, Lean Six Sigma tools like the 5 Whys or a Fishbone Diagram can be helpful in pinning down the root cause. But regardless of the method you use, it pays to take the time to get this step right.

Brainstorm solutions and decide which is right

Once you have a high degree of confidence that you’ve identified the root cause of the problem, now the team must identify the possible ways to correct that problem. Most of the time, there will be more (sometimes far more) than one way to skin that cat. You must empower the team to figure out the best-fit solution or solutions. Sometimes it’s appropriate that they decide which one, but sometimes proper management of business risks means kicking the final decision up the ladder.

Create the team to lead the change

It’s fairly common that the team that’s delivered the goods up to this point may not be the right crew to execute the selected solution. So once you’ve decided how to fix things, it’s time to empower the correct set of individuals who will do the actual work of building, buying, driving, and/or installing the solution.

Train people as needed

Good change management practices and abilities aren’t in-born in most people, and have to be taught. Since this work likely means big things for your business, identify those skills people might need and pay the right price to get them effective training. You’ll be glad you did.

Prepare for problems

It pays to make efforts before kicking off the execution phase to try to foresee potential problems and snags, and to define solutions for those difficulties before they happen. (The Lean Six Sigma tool of Failure Modes Effects Analysis is a good way to go about this.) You may get lucky and anticipate a problem in execution that actually occurs; then you’ll look like geniuses when you’ve got the fix right there in your hip pocket. But even if not, the very exercise of preparing this way makes the team more resilient and prepared if unexpected problems do arise.

Burn the boats

Changes that are essential to the success of the business mean your whole team (and that includes any external stakeholders too) have to have buy-in for the new way of doing things. Just like the old story of warriors landing on a distant shore and destroying their means of retreat, your company leaders must make it clear that going back to old ways of doing business isn’t an option.

Remember that no plan survives contact with the enemy

Similar to being ready for execution problems, you should also be aware that your plan for executing the change may fall short of perfect too. The phrase above refers to the warfare origin of this concept, but it’s true for all human endeavors: no matter how well we plan, we’ll likely come up short during actual execution. Being ready from the get-go to add to or deviate from the plan on the fly will make the needed adjustments a lot more palatable.

Fix problems without assigning blame

When you do run into the almost-inevitable difficulties, focus on correcting the problem and leaving your good people to continue doing their work. Pointing fingers and ranting and raving may allow you to blow off steam, but it’s at the cost of demoralizing those you rely on, and putting both the immediate work and the long-term need to keep your best players around at risk. Don’t do it.

Lather, rinse, repeat

You may have a whole series of problems to deal with. This is where good change management means having leaders in place who keep their wits about them and provide the right leadership to see the efforts through to success despite repeated setbacks.

And it pays to remind you here about that phrase above: “Bad news ages poorly.” When problems arise and everyone’s working their tails off to fix them and keep the train on the tracks, don’t forget to continue to communicate–especially if that communication involves changes to critical timelines and budgets. Those things happen, so let everyone know right away.

Celebrate your wins

In the end, you’ll get things finished. It may have gone super-smoothly, with everyone relaxed and upbeat all the way through, or it may have felt like an actual war and in the end your team may be beaten all to heck.

In either case, it’s time to celebrate. When it’s gone well, your team has earned that. And when it’s been loaded with pain and difficulties, your team has earned that even more. So take them out and buy ‘em a beer. Or an iced tea. Whatever they see as a real reward.

Focusing on solid change management practices ahead of time means you’ll get your change done right.