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Getting Change Started: A Look Inside
the Conference Room
By Robert Tobin
About 30 managers from a Southeast Asian manufacturing plant
owned by a global high-tech company are gathered in the room.
The managers from Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, the U.S. and
Australia represent all areas of the company's operations, including
marketing, manufacturing, human resources, quality control, administration
and customer relations.
Some wear the colorful shirts of the company's management training
school. But more than corporate management is present. The company's
suppliers and customers are also represented. Everyone here is
eager to take a fresh look at how their organization can address
some long standing problems and issues, and develop creative ways
to work more closely with suppliers and meet the needs of customers.
The training director explains the reason for this latest seminar.
We have had so many programs with fancy slogans and countless
initiatives from the home and regional offices, but still the
At the start of the program, participants are asked to switch
their watches from one wrist to the other. Removing the watch
is easy, but many people fumble around as they try to put their
timepieces on a different hand. It's a small change, but even
this one requires some effort and causes discomfort at first.
On the first day of the training, people talk about making major
changes at work. Amidst lots of nodding heads, people see that
even small changes are tough in the beginning, take time to get
used to, and sometimes require help to get through.
Midway through the morning, participants are asked to think back
to when they were four years old. This is quite a shift in thinking,
since everyone in the room is in their 40s and 50s. What do four-year-olds
do? They ask a lot of "why" questions. The participants
are then asked to apply the same inquisitiveness to situations
in their company. Among the questions are:
Why do we keep making the same mistakes over and over?
Why does it matter if the product has a visual defect if it does
not affect performance?
Why don't the people on the manufacturing floor see things from
the customer's perspective?
Why do we still have so many defects even though our quality
program is considered a big success?
Why doesn't top management walk the talk?
Why are our best engineers leaving us?
Why are we always reorganizing? It seems as if we just get used
to one way of doing things, and it's changed again.
The group becomes very animated as everyone begins to think openly
about some of the things they might otherwise be afraid to mention.
The participants then pair up, with each person choosing one question
they're most curious about and believe has the great potential
to benefit the company.
Only one partner is allowed to talk, while the other just listens.
The "talkers" repeat the questions and wonder out loud
about the possible answers. The listeners have a tough job, since
they cannot interrupt with advice.
The exercise allows the talkers to develop greater insight into
the problems and some possible solutions.
The managers are in high spirits during the lunch break. Everyone
enjoys being listened to and brainstorming. After lunch, it's
time to go beyond wondering and focus on the real job at hand.
The managers are asked to select one of the childlike "why"
questions and turn it into a query that is more mature.
The question "Why do we still have defects? becomes "How
can we reduce defects?" "Why do the people on the floor
not see the customer's perspective?" becomes "How can
we get the people on the floor to see the perspective of the customer?".
After groups of about eight are formed, some of the "how"
questions are written on the top of the piece of newsprint. Each
member of the group volunteer ideas as one group member writes
them down. Anything goes in this modified brainstorming session,
and it's like a dam bursting as people bring their collective
energy to solving various problems that the company faces.
"How do we get people on the floor to see the customer's
point of view?" prompted the following responses:
Make a videotape of what happens in the customer's plants when
they receive defective products.
Invite people from the customer's sales staff to meet the production
Let manufacturing people help with processing the paperwork for
The participants end their first day of training filled with
fresh ideas and a commitment from management to make sure that
the suggestions are implemented. When they return for the second
day of training, everyone is ready for action.