Leading for change is hard

Why do many small and medium businesses (SMEs) fail when they try and change something or begin something new?  Where do they go wrong when they want to bring something such as Lean Thinking into the business?

In my space as a consultant I see and hear these stories all the time.  “It didn’t work, so I can’t see it working this time around”. Or a nice little comment “Oh yeah, we tried that, it didn’t go far, it just wasn’t for us”. 

Overtime I have reflected on why this happens and where leaders of SMEs often make mistakes when starting something new with the best of intentions.  The following is my take on this issue.  It isn’t a definitive list of reasons by any stretch. So please add your thoughts in the comments to provide further insights.

Issue One: Leaders take on too much for themselves.
This is so common, especially in smaller businesses, it is so easy to get caught up in the details.  When it was a start up, yes multiple hats and roles were a thing, but do we adapt and redefine those roles as the business becomes more complex? In my experience, these roles were not delegated as the business grew and leaders / owners continue to play the same role. Business leaders haven’t learned how to say no.

The solution?  Start asking your team a simple question “What have you done or tried already?” Begin to install the idea that you are not there to solve their problems but there to help them find solutions. You are not there as the team problem solver or resident firefighter.  Don’t do - be the person that enables the doing.

This is why efforts to make a business better through Lean Thinking fail because it becomes the effort of one person. When they are not there, nothing happens. Even worse, when the leader is away for a few days, the team revert to “the way we have always done it”.  So why does this happen? To understand this, let go to the second fail point.

Issue Two: Failure to connect the dots.
Too often leaders jump straight to the ‘what’ they want the team to do. Again, they get stuck into the details. There is not enough time spent on the ‘why’.  

It is so important at the beginning to spend time with the team, talking about the opportunity, talking to them about the benefits for the company as well as for themselves.  Give them time to process this and figure out the ‘what’s in it for them’.  Communicate the reasons from an operations perspective, an owners perspective.  Are the changes important because of quality, profitability aka survival, identifying a new trend in the market.  There are always reasons - communicate these.  It could be newsletters, over morning tea. Use a variety of different communication strategies, time and place.  If you think you have talked about it enough, you have gradually built the interest and desire across the team - double down and do it again, then once you are finished - do it once more!  This is one time where over communication is hard to do.

Clarity and consistency is your friend at this stage.  Establish the message, make sure the leadership team is comfortable with it and you are all saying the same thing.  Any break in that chain can and most likely will derail all the effort.  So the message is communicate, communicate, communicate with the same message. Extending this time will allow you the opportunity to hear concerns, address them.  It will also give you time for the team to prepare for any change.  There might be a need to train people before you start, do they have the right equipment, skills, time.  Sort this out before the journey begins.  

Issue Three: Everyone gets too busy
You started with lots of enthusiasm, there were some great ideas and actions for the first couple of weeks.  If it went well, it lasted a month.  Change, especially continuous improvement, is a discipline.  When the day or week gets chaotic and busy, it is so easy to revert back to your default behaviours and actions i.e. firefighting, dealing with rework and chasing the issues. Often it is the leadership that asks for change but continues to work in the same manner.  There is no role modeling. As a result, the rest of the team follows suit. 

When things get busy, when it hasn’t been a great day - this is an awesome opportunity to jump into improvement mode!  Get in and fix one reason that made the day go south for the team.  Resolve an issue that is bugging them.  Because after all Lean Thinking is about reducing or eliminating the chaos - so deal to it when it is happening.  This is a fantastic way to role model the behaviour, the commitment that you are seeking from everybody.  It might mean getting into the trenches at the beginning, but you are on a long game strategy. Otherwise that day the team missed an opportunity becomes a week, which quickly becomes a month.  At this point all momentum is lost, believe me it is really hard to pull it back from that point!

Missing the opportunity to improve, eliminate the frustration only results in the same complaints keep coming in, more frustration because you promise this utopia of a workplace and it isn’t happening! It also has a massive opportunity cost attached to it. Nearly every SME in New Zealand misses out on approximately $170,000 a year because of poor productivity. Continuous improvement and Lean Thinking is your best strategy to get some of that additional revenue.  For every day you don’t take up that opportunity to improve, it can be a lost $700 opportunity.

To summarise the issues why improvement strategies fail. The challenge is to reflect on your plan before you start a continuous improvement journey.  Ask yourself a few questions.

  1. What is the message, your ‘why’
  2. Are you going to be the do’er or cheerleader?
  3. Are you absolutely 100% committed to this even on the real bad days?
  4. Have you got the whole leadership team onboard?

Like everything, more time spent at the beginning communicating, listening and planning will increase the chances of becoming a better business long term.


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