Prior to initiating a significant change, leaders should communicate to employees why their company needs to change. They don’t need to have all the answers. For example, they may not know what to change or what to change to yet? Still, they should articulate why they need to change. It’s quite simple. Change or die.
It reminds me of the movie Shawshank Redemption, when Andy says to Red, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice really. Get busy living or get busy dying.” You may need to massage the messaging, but don’t dilute it too much. Employees need to understand the reality, which is if companies are not continuously improving and moving forward, then they are stagnating and slowly failing.
There are both internal forces and external forces at play that dictate why companies must continuously improve to stay relevant and achieve sustainable profits. I think the internal forces are discounted too often. People tend to think that the processes within companies are static unless there is a project under way to improve them. That is false. Internal operations and processes in companies are always changing, whether we acknowledge it or not. It’s a scientific fact. As Mike Rother explains in his book Toyota Kata, the second law of thermodynamics tells us that any organized process naturally tends to decline to a chaotic state if we leave it alone. In other words, a process is either slipping back or being improved.
I’m sure many would take exception to the claim that their processes may be slipping back. Part of what makes it difficult to perceive this is the slow rate at which processes slip back. It reminds me of the fable of the frog being boiled alive. If a frog is put into boiling water, then it will jump out immediately. However, if it’s put in warm water that is slowly brought to a boil, then it will cook to death.
And, so it is with internal processes. Every day, employees are faced with challenges such as fluctuating demand, system updates, regulatory changes, etc. They must either use work arounds to overcome these challenges or invest the time to make fundamental changes to improve processes. In most cases, the former wins the day. Employees go about their days, getting their work done the best way they know how, doing things the way they have always done them, not questioning if there’s a better way to do them. All the while, the processes are slowly slipping back.
Then, there are the external forces. The preferences of buyers seem to be changing quicker and quicker, in large part driven by the increasing rate of change in technology. Meanwhile, some competitors are continuously improving and innovating. Not to mention the number of start-up companies that are clawing to create new customers and steal market share from incumbents.
Some employees might ask, “what’s in it for me?” The unvarnished answer is that if employees don’t embrace change and continuous improvement, then their companies’ processes will slip back while competitors steal their customers away, threatening the sustainability of their companies’ and their jobs. That is not a declaration of defeat. It is a call to action – a challenge if you will. That should be part of the message leaders carry forth to their employees in answering the question “why change?”
Not to dilute this message, but there is another more uplifting angle to use as well in communicating “why change” to employees. As Mike Rother writes in Toyota Kata, developing the capability of an organization to keep improving, adapting, and satisfying dynamic customer requirements is perhaps the best assurance of durable competitive advantage and company survival. Rother goes on to recount the following story from before the Second World War, when Toyota made weaving looms. Kiichiro Toyoda, founder of the Toyota Motor Corporation and son of Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, supposedly responded when someone once stole the design plans for a loom from the Toyota loom works:
Certainly, the thieves may be able to follow the design plans and produce a loom. But we are modifying and improving our looms every day. So, by the time the thieves have produced a loom from the plans they stole, we will have already advanced well beyond that point. And because they do not have the expertise gained from the failures it took to produce the original, they will waste a great deal more time than us as they move to improve their loom. We need not be concerned about what happened. We need only continue as always, making our improvements.
In this context, when employees ask, “what’s in it for me,” the answer is simple. It is an opportunity for personal growth and development. By embracing change, employees can be part of a competitive, successful, and sustainable team. They can learn new skills such as continuous improvement that are potentially more gratifying – albeit probably more challenging as well – than their typical day-to-day tasks. And while these skills will add value to their company, they are also skills that employees can own and can take with them, if or when they choose.
In summary, leaders need to articulate and communicate the answer to “why change” prior to initiating a significant change. In fact, these messages should not be one-time communications attached to certain projects. Rather, the communications about “why change” should be part of the day-to-day habits and behaviors of the organization. Additionally, they can and should emphasize that there is great upside potential, not just for their companies, but for their employees in the form of personal growth and development.