Driving change Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2009

It may feel counterintuitive, but as business slows, now is the perfect time to accelerate planning and improvement initiatives.

“Companies that are going to do really well coming out of this recession are the ones who keep a constant eye on the future and view business improvement as truly continuous,” says Jay Kuhn, president of Definity Partners. “Don’t wait for new challenges or hope for new opportunities to develop. Lead your organization, and start today.

“You need to look to the future, anticipate marketplace needs and make business improvement part of your culture,” he adds.

Smart Business spoke with Kuhn about how to make process improvements during times of economic uncertainty to position your business for success going forward.

What is the key to making process improvements?

You must step back and look at where you need to go. Re-evaluate the marketplace situation. Truly understand the needs of your customers — both current and emerging needs. Then, rebuild your business processes to efficiently and effectively supply the demand.

The most successful companies create a culture that embraces change and delivers sustainable improvement. They don’t get hung up on the constraints of their old approach. They understand that the old way of doing things continually loses relevance and eventually becomes obsolete. Instead of simply amending an existing process, successful companies take a transformational approach that builds from a visionary platform.

Ask yourself, ‘If I started my business today, how would it look? Whom would I serve? How would the operational processes be different than what we’re doing today?’ The answers to these questions will provide you with the foundation for a successful transformational approach.

How do you start making changes?

Start by shoring up the basics of your organization. Look at the core processes. Determine what is driving success and what is causing performance issues in each operational area. Don’t get bogged down attempting to create the end-all, ideal solution. Remember, the goal is improvement not perfection. Try different ideas to see what works and what doesn’t work. Incorporate each new insight into your ongoing efforts.

As you search for the best solutions, be careful not to fall prey to common organizational defense mechanisms. For example, during years when the economy was good, many companies blamed issues such as poor lead times or delivery delays on the fact that they were so busy. Yet, now when many of those same companies are experiencing significant declines in demand — when they are less busy — the same operational challenges remain. So, the inefficiencies now get attributed to different causes, such as limited human resources, budget cutbacks or some other recessionary condition. This head-in-the-sand approach makes driving continuous improvement extremely difficult, if not impossible.

How do you get people to buy in to change in an uncertain economy?

Most people want to do a good job, they want to be heard and they want to contribute to a successful operation. As a result, we find employees are generally very open to change. This is particularly true during challenging times when needs are more obvious. Regardless of economic conditions, two key elements seem most critical for generating and maintaining employee buy-in.

First and foremost, focus on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘who’ when identifying improvements. Don’t get caught up in the blame game. It’s far more important and productive to identify the right approach, and then lead people to implement it effectively.

Secondly — and equally important — make certain the necessary tools and procedures are in place for effective two-way communication. A healthy dialogue between the leadership team and employees keeps everyone informed and engaged. Communication drives creativity and innovation, and it helps identify and eliminate misunderstandings and motivational issues.

How do you deal with those who are resistant to change?

Continually build momentum by demonstrating success and tying it back to the bottom line. If you can show employees how it will directly impact them, they will be more willing to change. You must explain how it’s going to make life easier for them, better for the customer and/or provide a competitive advantage for the company. Once you’re able to prove success, they will begin to open up their minds and become more involved in the effort.

Start small: If you wanted to improve productivity by 30 percent, look for ways to make incremental improvements. Ask employees for any and all ideas. Take their input, put it into action and continually report back on the success. In doing so, make sure to link results to their involvement. You need them to understand that they are an integral part of the solution. One of the big mistakes companies make is asking employees to get involved, then not listening to their input or failing to show how the input made a difference. This oversight frustrates the employees and is detrimental to the improvement initiative.

Jay Kuhn is president of Definity Partners. Reach him at (866) 520-2003 or jkuhn@definitypartners.com.