Why Change? by Kevin McManus
First published in Industrial Engineer magazine December 2000
When I speak to groups on the topics of high performance and total workforce involvement, there is one question that I am asked more often than any other - what do we need to do to get others to change? In most cases, the people who ask this question represent a small group of people who really believe that these changes I am talking will make a difference, but they can't seem to get the rest of their co-workers to buy in to trying them. How can we make others change their behaviors and mental models?
In short, you can't. After thirty plus years of trying, I have learned that there are essentially three things that can make someone change their beliefs and/or behavior - a crisis, the opportunity for significant pleasure if the change is made, or a systems change. The first two items represent a type of change that must come from within. The third type of change initiator can force behavior change, but the belief change must still follow when the individual sees the results from working within the new system.
When I was working as an "official" industrial engineer (the words were in my title), I did not recognize the power that I had as a designer and installer of new systems. I had been taught that systems changes were intended to save the company money, to raise product quality levels, or both. Now, as an unofficial, but perhaps more passionate industrial engineer, I have learned that not only are system changes key to driving behavior change, and subsequently belief change, they are perhaps the most efficient means of achieving this goal. But perhaps words are not enough to convince you - let's look at some specific examples.
I write a lot of my articles on the airplane as I travel across the country. An airplane offers us a great way to explore the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of system changes in controlling human behavior. By looking at the different systems that we humans interact with as we travel via air, we can learn a lot about what makes people change and what does not. For example, what mechanism do we use to encourage people to lock the restroom door on an airplane? Well first of all, there is the embarrassment of having someone walk in on you. This fear has a slight effect on one's motivation to lock the door, but as we know, it is not enough. In order to help attain compliance relative to locked restroom doors, the system has been designed to keep the restroom partially dark until the lock is secured.
Respecting one's seat assignment is also ensured via systems design - each passenger has a ticket that states which seat is theirs, and the seat assignment system is designed to minimize the potential for duplicate tickets. Unfortunately, there are other systems on an airplane where compliance is often requested with a cheerful voice but is not realized across the board - seat belts are unbuckled before the plane is at the gate, seats are reclined before the official approval to do so is given, and carryon limits are pushed as far as possible. In each of these cases, we are still attempting to get compliance through repeated warnings, exhortations, and reminders.
Dr. Deming told us that such approaches would not work, we have experienced our own futility in using them, and yet we still waste time attempting to get people to change through their use. If we want a customer service representative to ensure that all key customer information is collected during a call, we should design the data entry screen and its programming to ensure that all of this information is collected (entry fields for everything needed) and that it is entered properly (you can't leave the screen unless certain parameters are met). If we want a certain pace to be maintained on the assembly line, we install a faster conveyor system. If we want managers to focus more on quality, we adjust their compensation package to include metrics that are quality-related.
It is my belief that there have been relatively few organizations that have converted themselves to a design that is more representative of high performance without a crisis occurring first. Most of the examples of high performing organizations that exist today were born either out of crisis or were designed that way from the onset. It is tough to shift a culture slightly, let alone turn it 180 degrees. It is enough of a challenge to get a small team of people to change their beliefs and behaviors - how can we expect to change a large organization?
If we return to the three drivers of personal change that I presented earlier - systems change, crisis, or the potential for pleasure - we can find possible answers to the "How do we make them change?" question. Many organizations are (or will soon be) in crisis, but it is simply not tangible enough yet. By sharing more information with people, we can help to create a crisis in their minds. By redesigning compensation systems and the daily job itself, we can attach potential pleasure to a change effort. By improving existing systems and installing new ones, we can force behavior change that will lead to belief change once the new system has been experienced.
We must first begin however by abandoning the belief that lasting change will occur as a result of asking, ordering, mandating, or demanding that it does. People will change when they want to - when they see value in doing so. As formal and informal leaders, it is our obligation to approach change in a meaningful manner if we really want it to occur. We need to improve the systems we use to share information, to compensate people, and to get the job done each day. If we ask people how to improve these systems, they will tell us. If we tell people that they have to improve, but don't say why or support them in the effort, they won't.
The next time you are sitting at a stop light with your seat belt unfastened, ask yourself why you are obeying the light but disobeying the seat belt law. The "secret" to getting people to change is all around us, but we have to be willing to look for it through the systems that are successful or unsuccessful in driving belief and behavior change. Keep improving!
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“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates