5S and Culture Change

Rick Bohan

I’ve been catching up on my reading on the Industry Week web site.  (Full Disclosure:  I’ve written articles for both the IW website and the magazine but don’t and never have made any money from them.)  I found one that speaks to an issue that I cover here quite a bit: culture change.  The article “10 Steps to Create a Continuous Improvement Culture”, reviews a presentation that Steve Olsen, Executive Vice President of Camcraft, an automotive components supplier, made to the 2016 Industry Week Manufacturing & Technology Conference & Expo.

Managers always like to hear what other managers have to say about what’s worked and what hasn’t for them.  And Olsen has some important things to say.  Here’s a summary of his ten steps:

  1. Get Help
  2. Choose What Fits
  3. Explain Why (Over and over and over)
  4. Keep It Simple
  5. Help People See
  6. Find Allies
  7. Be Open
  8. Be Generous
  9. Be Creative
  10. Be Patient

I’ll let you read the article to get Olsen’s details on all ten steps but there is one I’d like to highlight:  Explain Why (Over and over and over).  In my experience, managers don’t spend enough time…not nearly enough time…talking with employees about the continuous improvement initiative.  Sure, there’s almost always some sort of “launch” where managers express their total and undying commitment to the continuous improvement initiative again.  Too often that’s the last time anyone hears much of anything from management until it becomes clear that the initiative isn’t gaining traction.  At which time management starts asking “What the hell happened?”

I occasionally teach an Organization Behavior course at nearby Kent State University.  In that course, I focus on management of culture change.  I tell my students that change always creates resistance, that there’s no such thing as “no resistance” to change of any sort.  Managers do need to manage resistance as it becomes evident.  In the course, I covered a model for managing that resistance.  An important element of that model was stated this way:  Communication3  (that’s supposed to read “Communication Cubed” but I can’t do the 3 as a superscript).  By that, I meant that, before and during any change effort, managers needed to communicate a lot.  More than they’d think they’d need to.  Then, more than that.  I tell my students that, during a change effort, there’s no such thing as too much communication.

The idea of Communication3 carries with it the fact of lots of repetition.  Managers too often feel that, once they announce something (or, worse yet, once they post it on the bulletin board), everyone ought to hear and understand the message.  It just doesn’t work that way.  Managers need to tell each other and all associates why and how the organization is going about the change effort…over and over and over, using essentially the same words.

Let’s look at an example, one that I might have used before.  A plant manager I once worked with was upset that workers weren’t putting the change over tools back on the shadowboard he’d installed.  He had put the board up, announced to the crew what he wanted to happen, and returned to his office.  As far as I know, he didn’t mention the shadowboard or its purpose again until he complained to me about the fact that nobody paid any attention to it.

I told him that he needed to come out onto the shop floor twice daily (at least) to look at the shadow board and talk to the operators about its use.  If the tools were there, he could say to his supervisors and operators, “Good work.  That’s just what I wanted to see.  Anybody got any ideas as to how we can improve it?”  If the tools weren’t there, he should gather his supervisors together and say, “My damn tools aren’t where they are supposed to be.  I expect them to be where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there.  I expect you to reinforce this message with the operators.”  Twice a day.  Every day.

After awhile, he can reduce his communications to once a day, then to a few times a week, then to once a week and so on.

The central message is this:  if you aren’t talking about your continuous improvement effort to others in your organization several times a day at the start and several times a week even after it gains momentum, you aren’t doing your job as manager.


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