Hold Your Ground

Insist that leadership shows its support for change initiatives

by Mike Carnell

In the mid-1980s, the U.S. government decided it would stop inspecting products and begin inspecting organizations’ systems. In actuality, we didn’t realize what a significant decision that was going to be.

At the time, I was working for Motorola’s government electronics division, which decided to be proactive and form an audit team. That team was chartered to audit the manufacturing plant’s systems and bring them into compliance. Auditing was easy. Verify adequacy and verify compliance. Corrective action was like poking a balloon with your finger—zero effect.

As a team, we met with the plant’s quality manager to present our problem concerning no corrective action. A member of our group had developed an incredible understanding of what he referred to as "closed-loop corrective action." I will never forget what he said to the quality assurance (QA) manager that day: "Either Mr. Smith (the plant manager) doesn’t know about the corrective action issue, or he doesn’t care about it."

The QA manager went on ad nauseam about how much the plant manager cared. At that point, my auditor colleague said, "Well, if he cares so much, what do we have to do to get you to do your job and tell him about the corrective action issue?"

That was my first experience with getting management support. In the words of comedian Ron White, "I told you that story to tell you this one."

Always seems like a struggle

Last year, I was part of a panel discussion with three other people. One was a longtime friend. As can be expected, the question was asked, "What do we do to get top management support?" It seems I would normally be the one stuck answering that query. My friend took it instead. There is no answer you are going to get from a panel that has no idea where you work or what your real issue is. After a person brings this up in a group, the subject hangs on like a bad cold.

From 30 years of personal experience, it’s obvious that people still seem to struggle with the idea of management support. W. Edwards Deming has documented it as an issue, every change management consultant discusses it, and every list of critical success factors for any type of change initiative typically lists it as the No. 1 issue. And if it isn’t listed as No. 1, it definitely will be in the top three.

The point is that management support is not a new issue. The idea that it is a critical factor isn’t a secret. After all of these years, how is this still an issue? We have people professing their beliefs in the concept of level five leadership. There is a plethora of documents pontificating on the nobility of the quest for servant leadership. There are consultants on every street corner selling leadership training. Every branch of the government is buying leadership training.

Even with all of this amazing self-awareness, they never seem to catch the idea that they must be supportive of change initiatives to be successful. That really doesn’t seem to make much sense. It would seem that somewhere in this leadership cacophony, someone would mention to these leadership cadets the importance of showing support.

If you are part of a leadership team and about to embark on some type of change initiative (the prescribed mandatory management support is not indigenous to Six Sigma), and you have not addressed the issue of management support, you should ask yourself whether you really want this change to succeed.

If you embark on a change initiative and do not address what is commonly referred to as the No. 1 success factor, you’re sending a mixed message to your organization regarding your sincerity. Do you really want this to succeed? Tell people what they can expect from you in terms of support. If you don’t, you can be sure they will tell one another it is the flavor of the month.

A little less conversation

We have this chronic discussion around sustainability. If you do not have quality execution for any reason—but particularly management support—discussing sustainability is an absolutely inane exercise.

If you are a person who has been selected to lead a change initiative, a question about management support would seem to be a logical question for you to ask before you agree to take the position. If you don’t mention something that is your No. 1 success factor, you might want to consider that perhaps you’re not qualified to lead any kind of change initiative. Remember those people asking the conference panel about support? They may be the ones asking why you’re not doing what you’re responsible for.

If you are joining an existing change initiative, you should ask about management support. If you don’t ask and you understand it as a success factor, it can make you look incompetent if you later raise it as an issue. Unless you believe you can be personally successful as part of a failed deployment, management support is a personal success factor as well.

If you are caught in a change initiative that does not have management support and you have this burning desire deep in your soul to show up at a conference and ask what to do, then don’t. At the very least, you appear unoriginal. Nobody will whip up some of Deming’s instant pudding and solve your problem on the spot. Even if they had it, they would not be giving it away at a conference. That instant pudding would be worth a fortune.

If you are already working on a change initiative, you can take responsibility for your own success—at least on a project-by-project basis. We have had a tool for a long time called a stakeholder analysis. This should be a very simple tool. Like a lot of things over the years, it has morphed into a science project all by itself. This is the Occam’s razor version of that tool. See Table 1 .

Table 1

Develop criteria for the various categories of +2 through -2 so the scoring criteria is consistent. This is reducing measurement error with standardized work. Score your stakeholders between a +2 and a -2. This is a typical Likert scale analysis. Develop a plan to address anyone with a score less than zero. If you see no change by the analyze phase, escalate the issue to your Master Black Belt (MBB) or deployment leader. If it has not been fixed by the improve phase, shut down the project and stop wasting resources.

This may solve your problem in different ways. Someone may address the issue and allow you to continue your project with a higher probability of success. Someone also may terminate your employment. A lack of management support is no longer your issue and the quality of your life improves.

Remember 1989 when the man in Tiananmen Square had the courage to stand in front of a tank and the man driving the tank had the courage to not run him over? Two of the bravest people I have ever seen in my life.

Losing a job over being held accountable for a project, but not being empowered to complete it successfully, doesn’t reach the same scale. But it’s an image to remember: Hold your ground. Demand that your MBB, deployment leader and executive sponsor do their jobs. Hold them accountable because they intend to hold you accountable.

You will look back and realize you did yourself a favor.

Mike Carnell is president and CEO of CS International in New Braunfels, TX. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Arizona State University in Tempe. Carnell is a member of ASQ.

Thank You Mike for the reminder: Management Support is a Personal Success factor as well. Not just an organizational success factor.

And you are right about speaking up, as you suggest, does take Courage, as unfortunately, as you warned, I've seen people terminated for it.

Thank You again, as I always appreciate your insights.
--Bryon Brandt, 01-01-2019

This article is amazing with sufficient tactics helping to resolve daily conflicts. Nice to learn it!
--Frank, 12-12-2018

Good article Mike. GE developed its Change Acceleration Process a couple of years before launching Six Sigma. I still believe it is one of the most effective and simplest methodologies for driving change as a leader.
--Jeff Heslop, 07-04-2017

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