Monday, May 4, 2009

Success, For a Change

Studies indicate that approximately 70% of organizational change initiatives fail. That means we've all experienced it. And while it can be constructive to review the reasons for failure, I'm devoting this post to looking at one of the rare exceptions. Of all the change efforts I've been involved in, this one was easily the most successful.

The scenario: My former employer was a midsized, national environmental services firm with a stellar reputation and an impressive client list (they've since merged with another company). One day our largest client rocked our world by threatening to fire us if we had another safety incident at one of their sites. It wasn't that we were particularly bad at safety; the incidents of concern involved our subcontractors, not our staff. But we clearly had not made safety performance a priority. Now it was, with $30 million in annual revenue at stake.

Thus a broad-based safety initiative was launched. Let's examine the key steps we took in the context of the four stages of organizational change discussed in my previous post:

Stage 1. Edict: As I noted in the earlier post, not establishing a compelling reason for change is one of the most common causes of failure. This particular change effort got off to a strong start because we had a strong Edict--through no credit of our own!
  • External forces pushed us into change. The best Edict typically comes from the outside. When a top client forcefully delivers the Edict ("do this or else"), that will get most people's attention. It's advisable to leverage external factors to form the mandate for change whenever you can.

  • Executive management reinforced the Edict with bold action. Within two weeks of formally launching our safety initiative, the president of our firm fired two people for gross neglect of our safety standards. A few weeks later a collision with a slow-moving train at one of our sites (thankfully no one was hurt) precipitated another termination. These actions sent shock waves through the organization, leaving little doubt that we were serious about our commitment to improve safety performance.

  • Pressure was placed on middle management to uphold the objectives of our initiative. Another key reason why change efforts fail is lack of middle management support. Our middle managers where given specific safety objectives, and noncompliers had to answer to the president. Given what was at stake, there was little tolerance for willful neglect of the new safety measures.

Stage 2. Effort: Like most firms in our business, we had elaborate safety policies and procedures. But they needed an upgrade and heightened awareness and enforcement.

  • We hired an experienced safety director to lead the effort. To that point, our health and safety coordination had been ably handled by one of our former environmental scientists who had been promoted into the role. But he lacked the experience and credibility to take us to the next level. This was a critical addition to our management team, giving health and safety executive management level attention.

  • We developed the organization to support local coordination and enforcement. Change initiatives are impossible to run effectively from a distance. The change must be taking place at the local level with local oversight. Regional operations managers (I was one at the start of the initiative) shared responsibility for this. But we also appointed health and safety coordinators at each location to support and track our progress.

  • We overhauled our systems and procedures. Before you construct a building, you lay the foundation. That's the purpose of your infrastructure, consisting of policies, procedures, tools, resources, and organizational structure. Companies often err in attempting to encourage new behaviors while leaving the old infrastructure in place. That only reinforces the status quo.

Stage 3. Ethic. A forceful Edict and well-designed Effort help shorten the track to the Ethic stage. This stage takes root when people begin to see the value of the changes you've been making. Some things we did to promote the transition to Ethic and beyond:

  • Safety became a regular part of our "corporate conversation." If it matters, people tend to talk about it. If after a time it's rarely mentioned, people assume it wasn't all that important. Thus we attempted to infuse safety into every conversation. All meetings and conference calls were preceded by a "safety minute." Every day on site started with a "safety tailgate meeting." We knew the practice was beginning to take hold when it became practically impossible to start a meeting, call, or task without mentioning safety, lest someone remind you of the omission.

  • We implemented a behavior-based safety process. Once again, I must give credit to our largest client who pushed us to this level. The principles of behavior-based safety get to the heart of why people do what they do and how to motivate them to change behaviors. A key part of this effort was regular, formal observation and feedback, monitoring the presence of "targeted safe behaviors" and providing on-the-job coaching. We also provided rewards for safe performance. By the way, a similar process can be used (and I would encourage it) for any type of change effort, not just safety.

  • Safety goals were built into every employee's performance appraisal. As our field safety performance dramatically improved, we switched emphasis to the office where ergonomic injuries became our most common recordable incidents. Thus every employee shared a responsibility for improving our safety practices, both in and out of the office. Achieving safety-related goals were directly tied to salary actions.

  • Safety was increasingly stressed as a personal benefit, not primarily a corporate one. A crucial threshold in behavior change is when people see the personal advantages of the change. Our president was particularly effective in communicating the message that safety was important because our people were important. That sentiment was added to our core values statement. As a community that cared for one another, we emphasized watching out for our coworkers to ensure that they worked safely--for their own benefit, not simply to meet company safety goals.

Stage 4. Ethos. When the new ways of doing things become the natural ways of doing things, you've reached the highest level--Ethos. It is no longer merely what you do; it becomes who you are. Our safety initiative eventually reached this level, as evidenced by the following:

  • Safety became embedded in our corporate culture. It was no longer another set of activities that were added to our work; safe performance was now characteristic of our work. The two were inseparable. That's not to say we didn't continue to have occasional problems; but these were now the exception.

  • Furthermore, employees were now taking their safety practices home. Increasingly our conversation shifted from talking just about work situations to sharing how we were being more safe at home. That was consistent with the now established value of safety: It wasn't about the company; it was about our people. And their safety mattered both on the job and off the job.

The results. From 1999 through 2003, our OSHA Recordable Incident Rate dropped from 3.86 to 1.00, well below the industry average of 1.7. Other metrics also improved substantially to levels that bettered industry standards, most showing regular annual improvement. We could justifiably claim that our safety process had exceeded that of the client who initially told us we had to get our act together.

Hopefully you've found this example helpful, regardless of what kind of changes your firm needs to make. The specifics may differ, but the basic principles of this successful initiative apply to most any change effort. Yes, it can be done. But it takes tough, sustained effort, and focused management attention. Think you're ready?

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