Time for a change

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It occurs to me, perhaps rather simplistically, that one of the first basic rules of successful change management must be that the process requires a beginning and an end. But this fundamental principle is often forgotten.

Most change projects start out with clear, finite and pre-determined objectives set. Depending on the nature of the project, some are relatively easy to map out, for example implementing a new system, changing workflow or commissioning a new automated warehouse. Clear, concrete, and focussedtargets can be set relating to new performance levels for the measurables such as warehouse productivity, stock levels, cost per pallet, pence per kilometre, time to market etc.

However, where cultural change is involved it becomes far harder to be clear at the outset on what the change is looking to achieve. For example, imagine a situation where the key project objectives are built around such intangibles as changing how people think, work and behave and changing how the workplace looks and feels. In such cases it can be extremely difficult to define clear-cut targets.

The desired end result sometimes exists only in the mind of the inspirational, visionary and charismatic leader who instigates and drives the change. Yet an absolute and clear understanding at all levels within a business as to how things will be at the end is essential if change is to be successfully implemented and if it is to be lasting.

Analysis of personality traits of visionary leaders often reveals individuals who are very good at whipping up enthusiasm for starting projects. The visionary CEO will have huge amounts of drive and energy, be highly skilled in getting people on board and initiating change. All too often though, the finishing skills can be lacking in these individuals. These skills, such as paying attention to detail, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, an ability to stick with something even when it is getting boring, are vital to ensuring that the project or change management programme is completed. These are also the less glamorous, mundane and less valued tasks, the ones which may attract less attention and recognition.

People have an innate tendency to focus on what they are good at and on what they enjoy best. Hence the change leader will tend to focus on their own particular areas of interest and expertise perhaps to the exclusion of others. This may result in details being overlooked, time scales drifting and people not being kept informed – all points that may severely disrupt the progress of the change programme and may ultimately prevent it from succeeding

In today’s dynamic world of moving goal posts, how often do we see the objectives changed before they have been achieved? The well-worn phrase ‘The only constant is change’ implies a world where we may reach milestones, but change is never-ending, so we don’t finish what we have begun. There is less importance placed on the end. There is no need therefore to plan an end, quite simply, there is no end. It’s continual.

Of course inspirational change leaders are often blessed with a team of people who will balance the extremes of their behaviour – thus ensuring that the project is completed, through the efforts of other staff whose job it is to ensure attention to detail and to do the mundane jobs.

The beginning and the end principle of change management raises a further key theme for successful change management: Balance and followthrough.

To be effective change management programmes need balance and follow-through.

Balance and follow-through are required to ensure that not only is change led and inspired but it is well planned – that stepping stones are in place to ensure that it is lasting and will continue even after the inspirational change leader has gone on to bigger things.

Successful change management programmes need well-balanced teams, with clearly set objectives and complimentary skill sets. Skill sets need to be complimentary not only from a technical perspective, but also in the style and psychological make-up of the team members. The visionary leaders will inspire and energise people, and if backed by supporting team members will ensure that the necessary attention to detail is paid, that milestones are planned, budgets are met, progress reported, reports delivered on time, tasks delegated and quality levels attained.

Follow-through is needed in that if change is to be sustainable, processes must be in place to ensure that the new way continues after the change programme has been completed and the charismatic leader has moved on to the next challenge. People may tend to slip back into the comfort zone of doing what they have always done, even when the new methodology is proven to deliver more customer value and costs less.

To draw up a truly comprehensive picture of change management skills it is useful to explore some of the changes that have taken place in the world of work. Managers need an array of new skills to cope with this brave new world where we can easily receive 100 plus emails a day.

Logistics in particular has seen huge change in the past five years. Whether private or public sector, retail, food or non-food, automotive, pharmaceutical or electronics, the same trends continually emerge for the logistics and supply chain professional. The usual culprits are to blame: globalisation; automation; the Internet; a move to strategic sourcing; new materials handling technology; the need to reduce cost of inventory; reduced time to market; rapid stock obsolescence in some sectors; an increase in the number and complexity of channels to market; new trends in organisational design (with a focus on matrix management rather than traditional organisational structures); a revolution in how we communicate and store information; and a huge dependence on email and electronic systems.

The supply chain professional is now expected to do things faster than ever before, at lower cost, whilst making better decisions because he/she is better informed.

The new breed of logistician places high importance on values and attitude and the softer skills. Historically the logistics expert is primarily a technical specialist, with competencies learnt through experience, focused on knowledge and technical expertise. But in addition to the technical know-how the new breed requires an abundance of softer skills. Such as the ability to develop relationships internally with colleagues and externally with customers and suppliers and the ability to work cross functionally in order to understand the impact of their decisions across the business. Cross cultural skills and the ability to work across geographies and manage global projects are often required. Employers these days are looking for leaders who are creative, innovative and who score highly on emotional intelligence.

Perhaps in a sense, in order to cope with the extreme pace of change, the logistics and supply chain professional has undergone a metamorphosis, and has been transformed into the change manager.

So what are the characteristics of the successful change manager, the key competencies needed for successful change management? These will encompass the ‘hard’ skills, that is the technical and systems skills and the ‘soft’ people skills. As my area of expertise is people, I will focus on this aspect rather than the systems or the technical aspects of change management.

It is easy to list a plethora of adjectives used in many job advertisements to describe the key people or ‘the softer’ skills needed for change management. This may include the usual oft-quoted and rather lengthy list of dynamic attributes, such as: Energy, passion, creativity, innovative, charismatic, persuasiveness, customer- focused, ‘wow factor’, agility, confidence, and an ability to motivate and inspire others.

But these attributes need to be complimented with other equally important skills. These ‘delivery’ skills are for some reason viewed in general as being somewhat less appealing and are subsequently often less highly valued. This list will include: well developed planning skills, analytical skills, attention to detail, precision, focus on quality, well organised, good on time scales, excellent listening skills, problem solving skills, administrative skills, ability to complete tasks – even routine ones, ability to stay calm under pressure, and patience.

To ensure that change is lasting change leaders should ensure that their change teams are made up of individuals who compliment each other, and who possess attributes from both the above lists of skill sets.

Overall, teams need balance. They should be made up of those who can complete and finish, the worthy band of people who are less flamboyant, do not seek limelight, but who are key to success, as well as the inspirational and charismatic.

One highly important attribute for successful change management has not yet, however been mentioned. This is the ability to retain a sense of humour when everyone else is losing theirs. In all seriousness, this is probably one of the most vital qualities required. Consider the ‘Five Steps of Project Management’.

To expand on this. Firstly, the enthusiasm, the sudden rush of adrenaline at the start of the project. Next the disillusionment as the team realise that there is in fact rather a lot of work which needs to be done. Then things go wrong. Who carries the blame? Step four; it’s hard to get anyone to accept responsibility so the blame is put on someone else. Final stage, well actually, its turned out rather better than expected, and guess what? Out from the woodwork come the glory hunters intent on getting a piece of the action and the associated credit.

If Change Management is a continuous series of projects, the ability to have fun and to use humour to diffuse situations can make a huge difference to the outcome.

Beth Cauldwell is managing director for Norman Broadbent’s Supply Chain, Logistics and Procurement Practice. She is a Fellow of the UK’s Institute of Logistics and Transport and is a post graduate in Human Resource Management. For further information she can be contacted on: beth.cauldwell@normanbroadbent.com

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