Sustaining Changes in Your Laboratory
You’ve made the changes. Now what?
Making changes is what keeps your laboratory competitive. Sustaining change is critical to both reaping the benefits of the improvements and making even more enhancements. In other words, if changes can’t be maintained, we effectively take two steps forward, one step back (or worse). Many initiatives fizzle because of a lack of motivation or support. This difficulty in keeping up the momentum may be caused by nostalgia, the wrong measurements being used, lack of teamwork, poor communication, low confidence, and an inability to recognize the need to change.
People need time to alter behavior. Because the new way of operating is often very different, maintaining change requires daily discipline, cooperation, and motivation. Managers and supervisors need to be constantly coaching employees—especially in the first few weeks—and should serve as role models for the new behaviors and remind employees of what is expected. To sustain changes, your laboratory should focus on the following 5 key actions.
Having a vision, whether it is as simple as a sales goal or adding another product line to boost profits, is critical to share and discuss. A laboratory that has early, open-ended conversations with staff typically has the most productive outcomes, whereas the one that does not share a vision is usually unsuccessful in making change.
Ensure a Process for Change
People can cope with change better if they have some degree of control and influence over it. Make sure employees are a part of the implementation team and provide ways for them to offer feedback and ideas. Involving employees will also increase their confidence levels in sustaining performance after the consultants leave.
Laboratories usually have established measurements that they take daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. Often, these are different than those required to sustain the performance of a process. The existing assessments are likely “rear-facing,” meaning the events that delivered the results are in the past. Typically, these measures do not predict the future, so any mid-course corrections are not made, thus the desired performance may not be achieved because the managers are not aware of impending deviation from the desired performance. Measurements are simply an exercise on paper unless they are reviewed regularly and with superiors.
The idea behind measuring performance is to verify that we are achieving what is expected and that we are improving. One of the best ways to sustain good performance is to provide ongoing recognition, which may include:
Regular “thank you’s” from management, expressed at team meetings or informally on the floor
Memo or in-person “thank you” from a senior-level manager
Showcasing the department when giving tours to existing and new customers
Public displays of performance measurements for employees to see
Team celebrations, such as a company-sponsored lunch
Customer recognition such as sharing letters from dentists or patients
Team awards to encourage bragging rights
Small financial “thank you’s,” such as a $25 gift card to a chain store
If the laboratory is not achieving what is expected and management does not respond, poor performance tends to continue. First, understand the root causes and apply corrective actions. Publicly displaying performance measurements for other employees helps keep people aware of progress toward established goals. If need be, you may have to remove ineffective team members or leaders from the department.
Training Is Required
Ongoing training is essential for current employees, and even more so for new people. A survey by the American Productivity and Quality Center shows that “organizations providing 21 to 40 hours of annual formal training per plant employee have the best performance with regard to production rate and cycle time.” Training employees on all shifts is required when changes are made so everyone can properly implement the revised process.
Training doesn’t just involve technical skills or a revised process; enhancing the soft skills such as leadership, communication, time management, and problem solving play vital roles as well.
Sustaining change in the face of variability is difficult, but its impact can be minimized with some planning, forethought, and luck. In this case, we are not talking about major changes, but more the day-to-day variations that cause us stress. Variability is a fact of life and should be recognized for what it is. Examples include absent employees (due to vacation, sickness, etc.), lost employees (due to attrition, firings, or layoffs), less-than-perfect quality for incoming parts, unavailable IT systems and equipment, missing tools, and in-process quality issues.
The following are recommended actions you can take to sustain performance:
Staffing planning: planning your staffing to account for vacation, illness, and attrition
Skills matrix tool: tracking the skills needed at various operations against employees' skills
Ongoing training and cross training: ensuring that training materials have been created and time has been designated for new employees to be properly trained
“What-if” discussions and contingency plans if needed
Providing annual performance evaluation and development plan
Variability is unavoidable and should be recognized for what it is—a distraction. You cannot eliminate it; you can minimize the impact. Do not let it derail your efforts for change.
Sustaining change requires altering as many components of the larger system as possible, which include technical, cultural, organizational, or people. The better the alignment (or goodness of fit) between the redesigned process and the rest of the laboratory, the less likely it is for the process to revert to “the old way” of doing things. However, it is up to the team to assess where the problems are (or could be) and to take the appropriate actions for the situation.
Bob Yenkner is the owner of Practical Process Improvement in Higganum, CT.