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Changing Your Organization

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If you look at the history of businesses in any industry, you are likely to see the ups and downs of the players. You will see competitors come in, succeed for a period of time, and then disappear. We could assume this is just the nature of things and let it go at that, but if we look a little deeper, we'll see that there are patterns to organizational success and failure. Being successful can be the biggest threat to continuous improvement. When we are on top, it is easy to not challenge ourselves to improve. We start to coast instead of innovating. We believe there are guarantees to our world and regardless of our performance, the customers will continue to walk through our doors. Logically, it is easy to see the fallacy in this type of thinking, but emotionally it happens to each of us to some degree. Continuous innovation and change are necessary for survival. The question is whether your approach will be proactive or reactive.

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[edit] Change: Panic or Graceful?

When we are threatened with extinction, the survival mode kicks in and we challenge the status quo. We know the current situation is flawed and there must be something better. We look for innovative ways to create a different and better outcome. This type of change can be motivated by poor bottom line results, letters from valued customers, high turnover of employees or a shrinking market percentage.

When the panic-driven change is the motivator, our bodies go into their survival routine (remember 7th grade biology) and we become very active. Our adrenaline levels go up, blood pressure increases, digestion slows down, and we concentrate on doing anything and everything differently. Our ability to think rationally is challenged because we are working under the fight or flight behavior scheme. Our brain is not capable of working at it's maximum potential because of the chemicals that are running rampant in our bodies. Our physical well being is compromised. Headaches, ulcers, insomnia, short tempers, substance abuse and depression are common side effects of panic-driven change.

However, businesses also change when they have developed the habits of continuous improvement. They change when things are going well, not when they are stressed. Under the proactive mindset, our bodies are working in their most efficient chemical balance and our ability to process information in a logical and efficient manner is optimized.

Create good habits to challenge the status quo. Good economic results, good customer feedback, great employee relations, even awards and recognition for our quality of product or service --these are the indicators that it is time to challenge the current systems. I do not suggest that we change everything at once. That would be the panic driven thing to do. I do suggest however that we examine our processes for bottlenecks and strive to raise the bar and create new standards that exceed our current results.

[edit] Five Habits of Graceful Change

Changing gracefully means adopting new habits. Try these five simple steps to get out of panic mode and begin experiencing the benefits of graceful change.

  1. Take care of yourself. Nothing good can happen for you or your organization if you are not well. This includes your physical well being as well as your emotional state. There is nothing new about the formula of health. Our moms probably all preached the same sermon: "everything in moderation." These are good words to live by. I have been working extensively with the Duke University Medical School and have been impressed by their results in creating a system that optimizes each person's overall wellness. The following three-pronged approach is necessary:
    1. Diet -- Duke nutritionists recommend a well balanced diet. This is low fat (15% calories from fat), mainly vegetarian with moderate portion sizes and is the long term formula to give your body what it needs to maintain health. Occasionally wandering from this formula is not the end of the world, but continual deviation spells problems.
    2. Exercise -- 30-40 minutes of aerobic activity 4 times a week. Nothing new here. Just find something you enjoy and stick with it.
    3. Social and psychological support -- We all need someone. It is a myth that total independence is a strength. The research is clear on the impact of group support on long term wellness. This support can come from family, friends or co-workers. It is an essential part of the formula. Also take time to focus on your state of well being. This can be done via meditation, yoga or a simple walk in the woods. In a hectic work week it is the biggest challenge of all to take time to concentrate on our own bodies and minds.
  2. Set Goals. It's hard to hit the target if you can't see it. Too often people get up, eat breakfast, hurry off to work, work hard, come home, watch TV, eat dinner and go to bed. Repeat this thousands of times and we call that -- life. This is a dismal way to think about your existence. Remember we get satisfaction from feeling accomplishment. If we have specific measurable goals, it is possible to realize the gratification of goal attainment. We know what we are trying to accomplish and we have direction. Write your goals and share them with another person. Remember the importance of support from other people. We all need encouragement and help.
  3. Measure, Measure, Measure. The only way you can see success is to have clear objective measures. This is also the way to avoid the complacency-panic cycle. By having a few key measures for your business and yourself, you continuously determine your level of achievement. Post your measure where you and others can see them. Don't hide them in a notebook. Put them on the wall where you will see them each day. Use them as a tool to focus everyone in the organization in a consistent direction. Celebrate positive movement and keep focused.
  4. Raise the bar. Complacency can only happen to people who are satisfied with their current results. Satisfaction in reaching a plateau is a temporary great feeling. Just don't let it become a one-time event. Think of the current track stars and compare their performances with track stars of 10 or 20 years ago. Performance continues to increase because the effort to excel continues. There is no such thing a good enough, fast enough, or "anything else enough". This habit can be motivating and energizing when everyone embraces it. It is fun and exciting to improve and learn. Let everyone participate and be part of the fun.
  5. Appreciate. Change only becomes a habit when we perceive that the effort to change is exceeded by the benefit of the change. This is a human characteristic. You don't create a system of long term success by being a mean spirited taskmaster. Appreciate the efforts made each day by all people around you. Display an abundance mentality. Recognize achievement and sincerely strive to catch people "doing it right." This is the most powerful leadership tool in the toolbox of successful people and organizations.

There is no magic formula that will one day transform our attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. Only when the actions become habitual will the benefits become obvious. Take the first step and make these five simple activities part of your daily routine.

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Vince Langley is a corporate leader, national speaker and consultant, cowboy and public school construction teacher with a unique perspective on today's business issues. Langley has been working with a wide variety of clients for more than 20 years. His work with Nordstrom's in the retail sector, Boeing Commercial Airplane Co. in manufacturing, CH2M Hill in professional services and hundreds of other companies has led to an extensive understanding of the difficulties of implementing the tools of continuous improvement.


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