Changes, feelings and defenses

Written by Poul Breil-Hansen, Editor, Magasinet SCM
Published in: Effektivitet, Nr. 1
Date: 2015
Link to article

There is no shortage of studies showing that change projects based on Lean and other methods fail to last for a period of two to three years. The changes lose momentum and the results fall, fail entirely or even fall to a lower level than before the change project. The recognized Shingo Institute estimates that the reason is that companies and project leaders are skilled when it comes to implementing tools but fail to change the organization's culture and behaviors.

"My postulate is that we too often overlook the importance of the feelings that are at stake among the employees and managers involved in the change," says John Vellema, founder and leader of Business Through People who has accumulated experiences from a large number of change projects in Danish and foreign companies over the past ten years.

He adds: "We do not notice the feelings, we fail to handle them, and therefore we do not get the feelings as a 'co-player' in the change. Instead, the opposite happens, the feelings become an opponent of the change, a hidden but very strong and powerful opponent that can stand in the way of virtually anything."

According to John Vellema, it is no wonder we do not take care of feelings in the changes. Tools in Lean and other methods are rational tools that appeal to the rational side of people and the kind we are trained to relate to in the educational system. We are, however, not trained to relate to the more irrational sides of people and therefore he does not think it's weird that we overlook the role that feelings play when changes are to be made.

John Vellema has plenty of experience with a simple but effective method of reversing the feelings from being an opponent to becoming a co-player on the change journey. "There will almost always be plenty of feelings and concern at stake when a department or a whole business is going to change the way they work. It can be expectant joy, enthusiasm and zeal, but also anxiety, pressure of expectations, inadequacy, jealousy, guilt, sadness, etc. It is quite common and completely human to be nervous, for example, if I'm going to get into a new role that I do not yet know and fully understand. Rationally, I've done well before, but what will my former cohorts say about my new role? Such things create uncertainty." The method is about creating a list or table of concerns where all involved are given the opportunity to list the concerns that could now be at stake. Experience shows that it can be difficult for employees and leaders to get started opening up and putting the concerns into words, but usually it takes only a little time and patience before the silence is broken. It may be that the list of concerns will be listed on the agenda for two or three meetings or workshops so that there is a gradual habituation.

"It's not an easy exercise and it may take some time to get the dialogue started. It takes a lot of trust to work on this, but there is a point in that trust is a necessary platform for the change process if it is to work in the long run. The list usually spawns a number of tasks that management and/or internal consultants need to address before the change work can get started properly. It is important that employees and intermediaries perceive that their problems are taken seriously and addressed. My experience has taught me that this process releases energy to implement the change and removes a lot of anxiety and defense that would otherwise have constituted a hidden resistance to the change journey," he says. As a consequence, the change process usually takes a little longer in the start-up phase. But it is an investment that will provide multiple compensation in the long run, as it is about dealing with obstacles early before they grow big and unsurveyable. The final effect is a faster change and a more lasting improvement.

"There is a lot of talk about 'respect for people' in Lean management, but the way I see it, there is often all talk and no action. For me, respect is also about listening to your employees and taking their concerns seriously when we implement changes," says John Vellema.

At Amcor Flexibles in Horsens, they started with lists of concerns in conjunction with a TWI course where they started with a change process in a smaller group. The list of concerns has resulted in concern, anxiety and trouble elements to quickly come to the surface. "We are a small group of involved and we are all very committed. The list of concerns was quickly halved and we regularly follow up on it. The list has helped to ensure that safety is quickly created in the change work and the future we are entering," says Eva Salenius-Lundberg, Continuous Improvement Manager at Amcor.

Is the work with feelings operationalized? How do we achieve effective communication about the changes on the whole?
Will this be followed all the way to the door, or will it just be another bubble that bursts? Will the others accept my new role? There has been a lot of concerns at the board at PostNord Danmark Pakkeproduktion. "I'm sure the way we've visualized and worked with the concerns has removed a number of rocks on the road. The list of concerns has raised the nervousness to the surface rather than letting it be ventilated by the coffee machine," says Karen Stenholt, TWI facilitator and Lean consultant, PostNord Danmark Pakkeproduktion.

The North Jutlandic window manufacturer Idealcombi has worked with lists of concerns in conjunction with Lean implementation. "We consider the list of concerns an important part of our Lean work. It puts feelings into words and makes anxiety and concerns concrete and that means they take up less space in our heads. There is no doubt that in the end, the list of concerns helps make our Lean journey faster and more efficient," says internal Lean consultant Torben Rathmann from Idealcombi.