Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What is the Key to Sustainment?

If you've been a change agent/freak very long, you know the feeling.  It is that sick, sinking feeling in your gut when you just know you're wasting your time.  You've done the analysis.  You've trained the team.  You've even implemented their ideas and have seen dramatic improvements.  And you know it won't last.  You see the signs already.  The team speaks of "somebody" and "them" and "you" instead of "we" and "us" when talking about the changes.  You miss a day or even an hour of time with the team to return and see bad habits resurfacing.  You end the day or week wondering if your sweat and blood and tears were all shed in vain...

Okay, that may all be a little melodramatic, but you get the idea.  As much as most people hate change, there are still many, many people out there that love directing change...That love implementing change...That love driving change.  But there are few who are crazy enough to love LEADING change.  And leadership is what it takes to make it stick.  If you've been in the change business long enough, you've become acquainted with the frustration of seeing changes fail in the long run, in seeing improvements become backsliding into bad habits.  And you may have even grown tired of fixing the same problems over and over.  Is there any hope?

John P. Kotter comes to the following conclusion in a 2005 Harvard Business Review article on leading change:  "In the final analysis, change sticks when it becomes 'the way we do things around here,' when it seeps into the bloodstream of the corporate body.  Until new behaviors are rooted in social norms and shared values, they are subject to degradation as soon as the pressure for change is removed."  There has been a great deal of talk in recent years about changing "culture" in organizations, and that's really at the heart of Kotter's comments.  There are a few key elements to Kotter's observation that are worth elaborating on.

A good place to start in any organization is to ask the question "Just how do we get things done around here?"  That should actually be a difficult question to answer if an organization is serious about improvement.  Kotter says that change sticks when it becomes the way things are done.  Doesn't that statement seem self-contradictory?  Isn't one of the biggest barriers to change in any organization the stubborn insistence on "the way we do things around here?"  Clearly he cannot be talking about isolated changes that take place, but a culture that is accepting of change as necessary to improvement.  It is alluding to a corporate culture that is constantly proceeding through stages of improvement, followed by assessment and feedback that produces focused action and more improvement.

Kotter also talks of rooting behaviors in social norms and shared values.  Don't you have to change a person's values before you can change their behaviors?  If a person doesn't value hard work, how will they ever do it?  Don't get caught in that trap.  Often it is our behaviors that ultimately drive our values.  When I was a kid I didn't really value cleanliness or personal grooming.  There are pictures of me when I was ten where I looked like I hadn't combed my hair or washed my clothes in weeks!  Then when I was 19 I met a drill instructor at officer training school for the US Air Force that introduced me to the consequences of not following clear behavioral guidelines for personal grooming.  I still didn't value it very much, but you better believe my behaviors changed in a hurry.  My hair didn't touch my ears, my "gig line" was straight, and I actually learned how to use an iron.  Twenty two years I value personal grooming very much, although my focus has changed from hair touching my ears to hair growing out of my ears!

Finally, Kotter warns that until behaviors become part of the norm degradation in improvement will happen as soon as pressure for change is removed.  This is another lesson I learned in the military.  Years after my introduction to a demanding drill sergeant I was tasked with training young officers myself.  One thing I learned quickly was that there was no pressure I could put on another person that was as great as the pressure they would put on themselves if they were committed to excellence.  Once I had to remove a light bulb and white glove the inside of the socket to find a non-conformance on a room inspection.  The officer candidates were crushed, because they were certain their room was perfect.  They couldn't believe they forgot to wipe down the inside of a light bulb socket!  Now that is attention to detail!  As a leader, if you can create a culture that expects excellence in everything, you won't have to "drive" change.  Change will drive itself.

Which leads us to the question we started with in the title of this blog entry: What is the Key to Sustainment?  The answer to this may ultimately come back to what it is you're trying to sustain.  I would contend that specific changes can never be "sustained."  Either you continue to improve or you decline.  Either changes are improved upon or they are lost.  So the ultimate goal here is not to implement a change and then ensure it endures for the long haul.  The goal is to create a culture that demands excellence, that is always analyzing the way they "do things around here," seeking critical feedback, and taking action based on that feedback to improve.  Success (and sustainment of an improvement culture) is a never ending journey, but so is failure.  The difference all depends on the direction you are traveling on your journey...

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