ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - March 2001


Issue Highlight — Someone To Watch Over Me
- Peter Block discusses how technology and aggressive measuring can damage learning behaviors and the importance of human connection to the education of a child.

 In This Issue...
With A Little Bit Of Luck
Using Both Eyes
In The Face Of Change
Answering A Big "What If?" In Chicago

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change

Heard on the Street

Return to NFC Index

In The Face Of Change
How Dealing with the Human Side of Technical Change Can Increase Team Productivity

The only constant is change. Companies big and small deal with it on a daily basis, but employees are the ones who feel it the most. How can management help ease the pain of coping with major change?
  Steelcase, Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich., has been tackling that question for years. Through considerable time, effort and persistence they realized that approaching change from an emotional side was the best way to transition. Leaders can make it easier on employees by showing empathy to their concerns and keeping them well informed.
  Read on to see how high-participation communication methods can make a difference in the face of change.

Can team-management efforts go awry for big companies as well as for small ones?

  “You bet they can,” is the emphatic answer from Dr. David W. Mann, who has held academic and commercial posts in survey, market and strategy research.

“Steelcase has found that attention paid to the human side of technical change pays dividends in faster, more successful implementation—but it hasn’t always been that way.”

  Mann is senior manager for Operations Change Management for Steelcase, Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich., the world’s leading producer of office furniture and architectural interior products. He has been involved directly or indirectly in all of Steelcase’s teamwork efforts over the past 11 years while supporting a variety of cross-functional, technical and professional project team activities.

  “Why has our drive to establish a sustained, team-based culture taken 10 years?” he rhetorically asks. “At the beginning, our enthusiasm outstripped our judgment about what was actually feasible,” he quickly answers. “We were excited about the potential of employee participation and of work teams solving problems.

  “But what didn’t we do? We failed to define a clear business need that provided a compelling rationale for the programs.

  “People in executive and staff positions thought it would be a good idea to improve productivity and morale in a teamwork effort, but it was like giving a party and no one coming. As an organization we were sowing seeds on barren ground, promoting programs without recognizing the conditions required for their success. It was a classic example of corporate push.”

A Quality Revolution
To explain creating teamwork conditions at Steelcase, Mann refers to a news report concerning the General Motors Opel plant in Eisenach, Germany.

  “The plant was built on the site of a huge, communist-era plant that produced the Wartburg line of automobiles. In 1990, its last year of operation, the plant’s 12,000 employees built 70,000 cars—not world-class productivity. Today, things have changed. The Opel plant at Eisenach gets a lot of corporate attention as a model for teamwork, participation and profitability. The plant relies on its team leaders and line workers to improve workstations, monitor quality, fix problems and take responsibility when things go wrong. It values teamwork, demands discipline, rewards performance and responds to employee suggestions and complaints.”
What motivated the Eisenach revolution? The collapse of the Soviet economic system—an obvious need for change.

  According to a leader in the Opel Eisenach union, you cannot introduce a new system and run the old plant. “In our case,” Mann continues, “repeated efforts to foster teamwork ran into a culture designed to promote individual performance and individual effort.”

  Among the examples Mann cites was a pay system rewarding individual or small group piecework inventory practices covering over one million square feet equivalent of automated storage and retrieval systems; all part of a design that supports individual effort and output.

  “Our problem,” he points out, “was that our enthusiastic effort toward team management was like trying to force a round peg into a square hole.” For teamwork initiatives to take root, not only the culture, but the system itself may have to be redesigned. He stresses the things that interest people involved with the technical aspects of a new process, structure or merged organization are not the kinds of things that interest people who will be affected by the change.

  “For us, the piecework incentive pay systems are out as are lots of inventory. We have installed close linkages among work centers and tight interdependence between operations and operators. New pay plans are in effect. As various areas go through the lean transformation product line by product line, dramatic changes in physical production processes drive a number of cultural changes. One result is that cooperation and teamwork are now in the best interests of production employees as they themselves define those interests.” The corporate “push” has been replaced by informed employees for the long “pull.”

One for All, and All for One
Mann goes on to say that the firm’s new interdependent processes mean that when one element stops, all stop. This requires closer attention to how the process is running and how people are working.

  “In one product area that has just converted to lean, supervisors have discovered that with our conventional 1-30 ratio they can’t provide the close support needed in the new, more precise production system. As a result, there has been a new floor organization structure with an intermediate position between supervisor and the production floor. Referred to as “zone leaders,” they are skilled in shop floor leader needs and they work with small groups of 7-15 people.

  “Such a change,” Mann continues, “requires considerable time, effort and persistence, but the pull of a well-defined and willing system is far more effective than an ambiguous corporate push.” According to Mann, it’s a process that goes slower now in order to go faster later.

  “As in Eisenach,” Mann goes on to say, “our new system values teamwork, demands discipline, rewards performance and responds to employee suggestions and complaints. We are now operating within a system designed to support teamwork and participation.”

  How does the “cultural side” lead people through this period of change?

  “It is characteristic of humans to resist change,” Mann admits. “However, we have developed a direct, principle-based approach that rests upon three areas of concern: the emotional side of change, informed timing and the dynamics of leadership.

  “We explicitly assume 95 percent of the people in our factories and offices are reasonable men and women, so we must be prepared to share the information that convinced us change is necessary. We refer to the case for change as involving the three C’s: customers, competitors and capital markets [these determine company worth and holdings of our shareholder employees]. These are the factors which drive change.”

  Mann goes on to stress that leaders must be prepared to address employee concerns with empathy and to deal with all the impacts of change—technical, policy and procedural, and personal and emotional.

  “When leaders are able to project themselves into the future,” Mann declares, “they are much better prepared to persuade people to go with them toward it.”
In its leadership training, Steelcase stresses the importance of keeping leaders well-informed and well-prepared to respond to employee questions.

  “We use a structured four-step process with a mix of individual, small group, role-play and whole group techniques,” Mann continues. “First, we make sure leaders have basic program information, both technical and personnel policy related, and we answer their initial questions about the program. Second, they identify anticipated employee questions. Third, they develop answers to the anticipated questions. Fourth, they practice the answers, including responding to challenges and follow-up questions. Finally, they get feedback on how they did.”

  Mann goes on to point out that the major difference between conventional and participative communication is in two elements: the presentation and the invitation.
The presentation is brief, often less than 15 minutes of a two-hour session, and the invitation is not only to show up, but to come expecting to participate in a carefully planned, supported and structured way; to be “talked with” not just “talked to.”

  “Our experience over the past six years has been remarkably consistent,” Mann says. “When employees are given information about a change and then given the opportunity to respond with questions and concerns, they have invariably brought up issues that even the most careful project teams had failed to see.”

  Having earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Michigan, Dr. Mann is also keenly aware of how words can make a difference.

  “When the supervisor hears news at the same time as the team, it’s demoralizing for the leader and has a worse effect on the team.” Mann states, “‘I don’t know; I just heard about it myself!’ isn’t an answer that inspires confidence. An important element of our approach in preparing leaders to deal with partial information, or how to tell a person something when you don’t know everything, is simply to use the key phrase, ‘Let me tell you what I know.’ This direct approach is highly effective in that it allows leaders to talk with employees about what they are hearing. It treats employees as responsible adults.”

  Mann’s group developed and supports the cultural change component of two major initiatives for Steelcase, a $3 billion manufacturer with approximately 7,000 manufacturing employees in North America. It is implementing the Toyota Production System as well as a finite capacity Advanced Planning and Scheduling program. In addition, his group’s approach to change management is currently being adapted for use in Steelcase’s external consulting practice.

  “Change management in major projects such as Enterprise Resource Planning or lean transformations put an organization’s performance at risk. Real participation in the front line is needed to balance theoretical with practical. To bring this about,” Mann concludes, “requires high-participation communication methods, participative design and an all-important role performed by an effective change management lead. They can make the difference.”

March 2001 News for a Change Homepage


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