When discussing change management, disclaimers always precede the stories. It is typically hard to find bad examples because companies don’t like to share bad experiences or epic fails. While companies are more open to sharing positive examples, there are just so few positive change management experiences that there are so few to share. Change management philosopher and Harvard professor, John Kotter, estimated that 70% of change efforts failed. One could argue that this number cannot be quantified due to the vast number of corporate changes and the secrecy behind them.
In 2012 I was managing a large training organization for the construction firm Bechtel. They held a government contract for the Department of Energy and Navy where they would process all the spent nuclear fuel from their aircraft carriers and submarines. The nuclear industry has a low tolerance for errors to minimize the chances of a nuclear accident occurring. A highly trained worker performed the role of a fail-safe which made the training department a key piece to the organization. Not only did the training department qualify people to work, they controlled the authorization of individuals to work.
Technical work documents controlled the majority of industrial work. These would be step-by-step instructions controlling the work. These documents began with the Supervisor physically verifying that the technicians and laborers were trained and authorized to work specific jobs. For 60-years this system consisted of the Supervisor walking to the training department to access each of the workers’ records prior to the work commencing. While a cumbersome and time-intensive process, it held an error rate of zero.
In an effort of modernization, the training department decided to convert to an electronic records system. This would not only save significant amounts of time, but it would also increase productivity. Logically the transition to an electronic system was an open and shut case and a low-risk change.
During the next 9-months, we tested and acquired a learning management system. Due to security reasons, we had to set up an extensive network architecture for the system to work. Next, we entered the data entry of over 50,000 training records before we were ready to go live.
Two weeks before we went live, we beta tested the system and experienced a zero-error rate on 100 training records. We also issued an organizational announcement of the new system coming online and how to use it. I sent trainers out to each supervisor to walk them through the entire process so that there would be an easy transition for them. It surprised me to hear the Supervisors dismay over the new system when my trainers would return. What I perceived as a logical change, the key stakeholder viewed as an unnecessary new burden.
Even with the yellow flags with hesitation amongst the Supervisors, I decided to go live with the new learning management system. After the first 2-days, I received a few private notes of how easy the system worked, which reenergized my confidence. However, by day 4, 2 errors had occurred. In a natural occurrence, my team made a few errors during data entry. I inadvertently omitted that review in my quality planning.
These 2 errors resulted in work delays and subsequently stoppages. All credibility in the new system had been lost resulting in each Supervisor reverting to the old paper system. Knowing that the 9-month and $100,000 investment was on the verge of being shelved, we spent the next 3-weeks validating every training record. The damage had been done though, our credibility had been lost and 6-months after implementation I had to make it mandatory to use the new system instead of the old process. Our symbiotic relationship with the operations department was never the same following this mini-disaster.
I reflect on this change quite a bit as I age. If the grand scheme of things it was a relatively small change with a slight impact. Being a personal experience, its importance is magnified and has been my own personal case study to continue to analyze what went wrong. Luckily, the scarring from mistakes leads to knowledge that can only be gained from experience.
With this reflection the highlights of where I went sideways become incredibly clear. I looked at this project through my own eyes. Not empathetically through the eyes of who the project was for. The Supervisors didn’t see the need for change. They were happy with running their jobs that same way that they had for the last 20-years. I coupled this aspect with not selling the change to them nor engaging them early in the process. The result is that with good intentions I forced a change on an influential team of people. Even when changes, feedback, or comments have the best intentions, when forced upon a person they will resist.
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