In my last article, I presented the psychological steps of change and how to overcome the natural human resistance to it. In this installment, I’ll present an example of how to transfer those concepts into plans, the plans into actions, and the actions into continuous behaviors.

This process might be considered as a look at the psychological underpinnings of plan-do-check-act (PDCA). This is important because leaders and managers are paid to take action and get results, and that requires people to improve and evolve.

Before management starts to improve a person, department, or manufacturing process, it’s a good idea to invite those involved to help solve the problem. Two vital things happen here: 1) Involving people suggests trust in their abilities, which inspires them and encourages confidence and creativity; and 2) Psychologically this makes everyone working to solve this problem part of the same team and removes the “us vs. them” dynamic that often plagues these types of “smart boss, stupid employee” misperceptions.

A manufacturing case study

Company ABC makes mining shovel teeth. Recently, hardness consistency had dropped to a point where 40 percent of product heated, treated, and quenched was either too hard or too soft, which cost the company about $115,000 a month in scrapped product and rework costs.

Management took a 10-step approach to investigating, implementing, and maintaining changes that would alleviate this situation, as follows:

1. Prioritize objectives. It’s necessary to choose one quality metric to measure and improve in a limited period of time (say a single month or quarter). In this case, management decided to look at improving the quench tank process over the next 30 days.

2. Determine target result. This requires specificity; management targeted an improvement in hardness consistency of around 400 and a reduction in scrap loss from 40 percent down to an acceptable 2–3 percent.

3. Asking, “How will improvement in this area help the customer?” Longer wear extends tooth life and provides a better return on the company’s investment. Brittle teeth break and go through the crusher, which halts mining production at a cost of anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 a minute.

4. Asking, “How will this help our employees?” Everyone is motivated by self-interest, so you must gain buy-in by tapping into how the process will make each employees’ life better. You can do this in two ways. For this project we first gathered management and the employees involved, and defined short-term vs. long-term benefits. We discussed that improving quality reduces rework in the long term but may require learning new steps or methods in the short term. After facilitated discussions the employees and supervisors understood this and were prepared for an adjustment period. It was important that we were honest and walked the workers through these steps so they could partner with us to solve these problems.

Second, we personalized the issue by asking if employees enjoy reworking teeth (i.e., by reforging and requenching them), finding storage within limited space, and reducing investment in better machinery (not to mention employee bonuses) due to extensive losses caused by these issues. This type of discussion between management and employees made the problems real and not something they could look past just to get “their” part of the job complete. Employees learned they were responsible for every step in the process as well as the finished product, not just the one stage they oversaw.

5. Review the actual methods used previously—not the “official” documented version but the actual, everyday methods. Gaining trust from the workforce is of paramount importance, and this step in the process shows you why. Initially, management experienced lying due to fear of reprisal (historically, supervisors would treat employees terribly), but after some facilitation, assurances, and honest conversations about the bigger picture related to quality, employees started to share honestly.

If people fear reprisal, they will lie about the numbers or actual methods, and you won’t be able to properly interpret the data and make the necessary adjustments. Human interaction and communication is reciprocal, and trust is the basis for open dialogue. Without trust you have no dialogue, but rather the simple, brute-force power that tends to be inherent in a typical management structure.

Here are two quick ways management decided to improve trust:
• We invited employees to help solve the problems. Employees often know more about the machine, product, or actual process performed each day than anyone else and generally have great ideas if management will take the time to ask—and listen.
• I encouraged management to admit mistakes. Employees knew when management made mistakes, and nothing destroys trust quicker than pointing fingers or accusing those who can’t stand up for themselves. Conversely, trust started improving when management took steps to accept responsibility for its mistakes. I coached managers to model the behavior they needed to see in their employees. This created the basis for a “learning organization.”

In our example, employees were busy and would often leave teeth in the quench tank while they did other work. As a result, teeth would stay in quench for anywhere from 4 to 30 minutes (the optimal time is 6 to 7 minutes). The control methods used up to this point were cell phones or a stopwatch hanging from a workbench, but the practice was inconsistent at best.

6. Create a concise plan and measure changes. Employees suggested that management purchase and attach a large, 12-in. numbered digital timer and buzzer to the quench tank with a remote control that they could set from the forklift. As employees did other tasks, they could easily monitor the quench-tank timer from a distance. It was a great idea, an inexpensive and easy way to correct the timing issue.

This improved the process, but then another issue was discovered. It was determined that the liquid used in the tank wasn’t being recycled efficiently enough, and therefore the temperature of the solution wasn’t consistent. This had been suspected and talked about between employees and management, but now management actually faced the bitter facts and invested in a better pump and recycling method.

7. Follow through consistently. Old habits can’t be stopped; they must be replaced by a new routine or “keystone habit.” In other words, the new habit or routine must be recorded over the old habit and positively reinforced consistently for it to become a permanent “keystone” habit. For the first 30 days after the new process started, employees and management monitored the process and results daily, making slight adjustments as needed to hit the target numbers. Successful heat ranges and hardness became consistent, and this helped to naturally reinforce the process and develop confidence in these habits as well as between employees and management.

8. Measure and refine. Be sure to monitor the new process daily, then weekly, and make adjustments as necessary.

9. Anticipate awkwardness. Until a new process becomes habit, workers as well as managers will be at risk of reverting to the old habit. I discussed this with the team and reframed mistakes as normal, emphasizing that they should be discussed so everyone could learn and improve. In our example, the department supervisor was trained and coached to see the big picture and choose product quality over sheer quantity as well as to provide employees with encouragement. In addition, management and workers discussed the organizational objectives together so they had buy-in. In this way, everyone came to see and understand the goal, and provided information that led to further reductions in costs and improved bottom-line results.

10. Debrief what worked and what didn’t, and refine accordingly.Debriefing about successes and failures is one of the most effective tools a team has to leverage organizational learning, and yet it’s the least used. People don’t have time to debrief for 10 minutes, but they seem to find time to replicate the mistakes numerous times each year. Management and employees debriefed the process and methods used, which were documented and put into protective plastic sheaths so they could be accessed easily on the shop floor. These documents aren’t written in stone: The search for better methods should always be encouraged and new processes documented accordingly.

It’s management’s role to improve the organization’s performance and make sure that new and better processes are vetted, adapted, and utilized. Getting buy-in for new steps needn’t be a challenge if these simple behavioral processes are kept in mind so that employees and management work together throughout the process from inception to implementation.

Challenges such as these can divide a team further, but if coordinated and facilitated properly, they can be used to steer organizations toward success. As a result of this challenge, the employees and management of ABC learned to discuss problems and discover solutions together. In addition they learned to struggle and work through differences, which helped them work toward a successful and profitable conclusion. These skills are now being used to help ABC address other challenges.