The Business Improvement Network

Business Change - The People Aspects

By Graham Cook

Graham Cook - Business Improvement Consultant

You have determined your strategic goals, worked out your strategy and defined the programme(s). So you are good to go, right? Not quite. It is relatively straightforward to build a project plan, the challenge comes in delivering it and the most challenging aspect is often the people aspect. There are two challenges:

1.    Freeing-up and empowering staff, who are already ‘busy’, to deliver the programme 
2.    Orienting staff to embrace change


Freeing-up Improvement Resources
I recently led a programme for a multi-national company that wanted to use the implementation of a new chemical regulation to drive transformational change involving rationalisation of its product range, optimisation of its processes, and reinforcement of its market position. 

While the primary objectives of the programme were to ensure compliance, reduce costs and reinforce market position, the reduction in portfolio and streamlining of processes were also intended to generate more time for staff to add value. However, in order to reach that improved position, the programme would place an additional demand on staff who were already fully occupied. 

This brings us to the dilemma that, in order to get to a position where staff have more time to add value, it is necessary to go through a period where more is required of staff who apparently have no time available.

There are various options for addressing this.

The first thing is to consider the planned project in the context of the other programmes being run. Can these be adjusted to free up resource for the project? It is often found that the same group of ‘key’ staff members, typically functional heads and cell leaders,  are in demand for company programmes. In staff development planning, it is important to address this by specifically developing expertise in sub-ordinates to enable them to deputise in certain areas. 

Another approach can be to structure the project so that the department head is involved in the steering of the project, but the leg-work is done by sub-ordinates managed primarily by project management resource. In the programme referred to above, I worked with the Directors on the strategic planning but the tactical implementation was managed directly by me with the Product Managers and Stewards.

Another avenue to freeing up staff is to manage Business-As-Usual activities differently; for example, can colleagues in a department buffer someone on the project team or can an existing activity be pared-back? The client in the case study took the decision to suspend New Product Development for 6 months to facilitate the programme.

Another option is bringing-in external resource with particular expertise to support your staff, such as facilitators of business improvement, programme management resource or external ICT or data mining resources. Alternatively, temporary or agency staff could be brought-in to stand-in for team members.  We successfully brought in data experts and regulatory assistants for my client for the periods required.

Part of building a workable staffing plan is to ensure that those assigned to the project are made available and aligned as required. The real test of this comes when delivering the project against the competing priorities of the business and customers. Hopefully the functions delivering the project have been involved in its selection and planning as it is essential that the value of the project and the responsibilities and time-commitment for delivering it are bought-into by everyone concerned. The objectives and responsibilities need to be cascaded from the business leadership down through the organisation, resulting in defined objectives for everyone involved in the project; these can be incorporated in the staff performance review process. Critical to success is that the line managers of the core project team buy into the project and are committed to ensuring that the team deliver it on-time and in-full.

Successful project teams do not derive solely from representation of functional expertise but also from a good mix of characters, such as a team player, a networker, someone with attention to detail, another who is creative and someone target driven. A diverse mix of characters was chosen for the Project Management Office in the case study. This led to lively interactions; however, these challenges were never personal and ensured that the project resources were used effectively.

Also bear in mind that the project team may need adjusting for different phases of the project and this should be prepared for proactively as the project progresses. Typically, as in the case study, the Planning phase will require senior management/strategic focus while Execution often requires more operational personnel; Monitoring and Control may require the Quality Department and HR, while ICT and data mining resources may only be required at particular stages. However, the core team should be retained to maintain the thread of the programme. 

Embracing Change
Once the above have been addressed, you should have a resource plan that can deliver the improvements. But the improvements then need to be accepted which brings us to the second challenge of orienting staff to embrace change. It is a conundrum that typically the majority of staff want things to be better, but those same staff do not want the upheaval and effort of change. There are two paths to addressing this mindset: 

1.    Orienting staff to change
2.    Demonstrating a manageable plan to integrate the change

Staff will often buy-in initially to change that is for the good of the company but their support may wane if it proves not to benefit them personally or requires them to take on additional or new processes. Training to enable staff to see change as an opportunity not a burden will help them to be more receptive and enthusiastic. Additionally, the more that the change can be shown to benefit the work processes or environment of the personnel concerned, the better; cascading and communicating the project objectives and benefits to each function and process is therefore important. 

The importance of involving the process operators in the development of their processes, both to instil ownership and because of their knowledge of the ‘coal-face’, was demonstrated in the case-study by a relatively smooth and painless Execution phase.

Prior to the Execution phase, the steps to enable process operators to integrate the change need to be incorporated into the plan. This will need to include training on the new processes and, possibly, a period of hand-holding. Staff are often concerned about operating new processes that they have not had time to fully assimilate, under the pressure of day-to-day business. It therefore is a good idea to provide time and space for assimilation by, for example, adjusting priorities or providing interim resource support. 

Communication and involvement are key. We were very heedful of this in the successful implementation in the case study, with presentations of progress and next steps in newsletters, and in local monthly briefings with Q&A sessions, significantly aiding implementation. 


In summary, project plans predominantly define the ‘What’, ‘When’ and ‘Who’ of improvement delivery; however the ‘How’ is probably the most important factor for success and is largely dependent on how human resources are managed. I hope that the above will assist with this and the delivery of successful transformation.

About the author

Graham is a motorsport and West Ham fan and enjoys playing football, keeping fit and modern music. He has been a change/improvement professional for 30 years including 25 years at Valspar (now Sherwin Williams).

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