The Supply Chain Detective™ and the Change Paradox!

Change Paradox
Unchaining Change Leadership

I was brought into the company to make changes happen. The company was facing overwhelming competition from a global behemoth. The product portfolio was outdated and the company needed to enter new markets with new products. And that meant that a fundamental change in processes, structure, systems and culture was required. There should be no change paradox.

The dire situation, and the need for change, was communicated first from the CEO. And it seemed that everyone in the organization, regardless of level or title, all recognized the need for change and the sense of urgency.

But when it was time to make change happen the level of resistance, from the CEO on down, was incredible.

The forces for change met with equal and opposite forces against change. This change paradox, and the resultant paralysis, could only be solved by The Supply Chain Detective™.

The Forces for Change

The company had been the industry leader for decades in the country in which they predominantly did business. All competitors were so small as to be barely noticeable. The company controlled their market channels, products, pricing, and customer expectations. They were untouched and feeling invulnerable.

But nothing is forever. A massive competitor, specifically Amazon, entered the same market for which the company had unchallenged monopoly control for so long. Amazon could deliver products directly to the consumer’s door, at lower prices, faster, and provide a wider selection than the company ever could conceive of offering.

At the same time technology progressed such that the company’s products could be offered and sold digitally. The company had zero experience in the digital space. This meant that other competitors had an extremely low barrier of entry into the once unchallenged market space.

The heat was on. If nothing was done the company would go out of business, in very short order.

Change Envisioned

The company developed a strategy. They were going to have to develop an Ecommerce business arm. A compelling web site, a digital product offering, online customer order management, an online distribution centre and logistics infrastructure, and all of the supporting business processes, systems and skills and organization structure were going to have to be put in place.

Every aspect of this planned change was new to the company. It was so new that most of the incumbent employees and managers had neither the experience nor the skills to know how to even start to make these changes.

Still everyone knew that the new vision seemed sound, the described changes were necessary, and most importantly that they didn’t know how to do it themselves. They would need outside help. They would need people experienced in these areas and experienced in making these transformations happen, successfully.

That’s when I was hired to effect change leadership. That’s when I would find the change paradox, often in the same people, whereby the people who wanted the change but were just as capable of blocking the same change that they wanted.

The Characters

Making change happen is never easy. But depending on the people involved it can be made easier. However there are often people involved who will make it more difficult. Some will even go out of their way to put so many obstacles in your path that change is virtually impossible.

To understand the challenge ahead it was important to understand the players involved. Typically they could be categorized as follows:

The Change Agent

Some people are so committed to making change happen that they will lead the effort, volunteer their time, and go the extra distance to get things done. These people are your biggest advocates.

The Team Players

These people recognize and understand the need for change, they would benefit from the improvements, and they are eager to participate. They may not know how to make this change happen but they are happy to be on the team and follow the leader.

The Spectators

The spectators don’t want to be involved on the field but they are happy to sit in the stands and commentate on how things are going. If things are going well they may cheer. If things are not going well they may loudly boo. At a minimum they are happy to give their opinion and criticize. They feel no responsibility for the outcome but will have something to say about it regardless.

The Saboteurs

These people are not team players, even though you are all working for the same company. They don’t like change. They don’t want change. They just don’t like anything different, particularly the people who are trying to make change happen.

In fact they have developed techniques, alliances, and cultural barriers that are designed to prevent change or sabotage change. Left unchecked they will work their evil ways. The only hope is to turn these saboteurs into team players.

Double Agents

These people are perhaps the ones to be most wary of. They can be difficult to spot. On the one hand they act like team players but when out of sight they act like saboteurs. Their allegiance is fleeting at best and ultimately non-existent.

Identifying them is the challenge. Any subversive actions need to be uncovered, confronted, and called out. Only then can you hope to turn double agents into team players.

The Head of Chaos

These people are leaders in their own right. They can be Executives at any level, or just hold formal organizational authority. They can also be double agents and saboteurs of the highest level.

They can smile and support the need for change on one hand and then exercise tremendous power through their formal authority to undermine and discredit the change and the change effort.

These are the most dangerous people. They can’t be ignored. They must be confronted with force.

Let the Games Begin

The very first step was to have a frank conversation from the CEO. For organization wide business transformation to be successful I needed very clear, visible, and unambiguous Executive Sponsorship from the CEO. Everyone in the entire organization needed to know that this was important to the CEO so it was important to them. Without this there was no sense getting started.

The next step was to assemble a cross functional team composed of leaders from every part of the organization. The original stipulation was to get people who wanted to be a part of the change, were respected in their respective areas, and were rain makers. Even with this attempt to only recruit team players I knew that there was likely still some subversive elements on the team.

Then we proceeded to roll out our change strategy to the entire population. Communication was key and foundational to any successful, and sustaining, change effort. This was to be followed up by a regular set of actions focussed on communication in regular intervals designed to keep everyone informed, motivated and on board.

Now all of our focus was on making the changes that were needed to fundamentally transform the entire business. We needed to approach this from the top of the organization, from the grass roots of the organization and everything in between.

Detecting the Characters Creating the Change Paradox

It’s not usually easy to see all of the characters who are playing some part, good or bad, towards your change initiative. That is because it can often take some time to see how things play out. The best way to discuss some of the characters in action is through a series of examples as to what we experienced.

The Core Team

Myself and 3 other leaders constituted the Core Steering Committee, or more accurately team, that lead the entire transformational effort. Their commitment to the effort was unwavering and irrefutable.

We met regularly to discuss status, progress, and issues. We shared the objectives and the resolve to get change implemented. Together we honestly and openly discussed how to get over the inevitable barriers we had.

No matter what obstacles we faced, no matter what pressure was put in front of us, the Core team held true. There was no question that these people were change leaders. If we had any problems this group was focussed on solutions only.

Metrics and Credit

The tangible bottom line metric for the change effort was cost savings. When the inevitable questions came up about how these were going to be tracked and measured the answer was simple: the Finance team would objectively track, and audit, and savings to ensure that there was no ambiguity as to the results.

But identifying what savings could be counted toward the change initiative was a little trickier. Change in the organization had been stagnated for a long time. People had ideas in the past, and even vocalized them, but more often than not they were ignored or shut down.

Our change initiative provided an open, consequence free, forum, for people to submit any and all ideas, whether old or new. We weren’t too proud to accept improvement ideas from anyone, anyhow. It was all for the cause. And our platform provided the only vehicle for any of these ideas to be considered, let alone implemented.

As we proceed to make many of these changes inevitably some of the original idea contributors started making noise that these ideas had originated long before our change effort. While that was true these ideas never saw the light of day before. Only our effort got these ideas heard and implemented.

Still some of the idea creators took exception to the inclusion of these ideas in our tally of change improvements. They wanted all the credit for themselves. They failed to see the bigger picture, became highly myopic, and their efforts undermined what we were trying to accomplish.

Worse yet the CEO started to listen to this stuff, and started to segregate what we could take credit for in the metrics and what we couldn’t. Despite the fact that neither the CEO, nor anyone else, gave any of these past initiatives a passing acknowledgement, several ideas were removed from our list of changes.

The CEO had started to undermine the change effort that they wanted to see implemented. The parochialism that ensued reinforced the interia which the CEO had fostered in the first place, which created a huge set back in what we were trying to achieve.

Cultural change is difficult in the best of times, but it is even more of a quandary when the CEO wants cultural change but then take all steps possible to prevent cultural change. The CEO started off as a change agent and sponsor, but ended up being a saboteur and leader of the resultant chaos. This was the change paradox at its worst.

Big Business Process Changes

Our change effort required the fundamental redesign of many business processes spanning most of the functional areas in the organization. Tackling this required an in depth knowledge of how things were currently done, the problems, and a vision as to what changes needed to be made to support the future direction of the company.

To tackle this we assembled a large cross functional team consisting of the best and brightest in each part of the organization. Our first effort was to map out the current state as to how the existing business processes worked. This took a lot of time, and a lot of discussion and debate, culminating in the first ever end to end current state process mapping of the company.

This effort alone united and aligned the team unlike anything ever done before. For the first time they really understood how things worked, what problems everyone was dealing with, what the inefficiencies were, and what had to be done. They were excited. We had created a galvanized team of change agents.

The next step was to map out the future state that we all wanted to see implemented. We simplified process steps dramatically, eliminated redundant efforts, and made profound improvements in future process design. We were set to present this vision to the CEO.

And that’s where the trouble began. Shortly into presenting the future state the CEO started to have a meltdown. You see the CEO had a view developed decades before in university as to how change was to be done. Regardless that these philosophies were outdated, they still had sentimental value to the CEO. And when our vision was not presented in accordance with that antiquated paradigm, the CEO was not able to take, or make, the mental leap needed.

The result was that the CEO shut down the effort. The very person who recognized and sponsored the need for change had once again become the most significant obstacle in making the change they wanted to see.

The demoralizing impact of this change paradox on the team was very visible. It caused everyone to question what we were doing and the enthusiasm and excitement we had built up quickly vanished, never to be seen again.

Grass Roots Changes

One of the changes we needed to make was to improve the operations of all of the backrooms in all of the retail stores across the entire country, over 250 of them.

To make these improvements over such a wide geographic area amongst such broadly dispersed operations was going to require a different approach. We decided to pilot a lean process improvement plan in one operation, see how it went, and then decide on our next steps.

We picked one location, explained to the team what we were going to do and started the pilot. The pilot involved a one day event. The start of the session would involve basic training on lean principles followed by the hands on application of those principles to improve the backrooms over the rest of the day.

At first some of the people in the backroom were highly skeptical. To have this team from corporate descend on them with the promise of improving how things were done, in one day, seemed ludicrous at best and most likely impossible.

But the reality was different. The nature of the lean training, the hands on participation of the corporate team, and the rapidity and effectiveness of the profound changes made believers of everyone. The skeptics became believers. More than that they became advocates and change agents. The cultural change we needed had started, and it started at the grass roots level.

News of our success spread far and wide rapidly. We trained a select number of people in the same techniques and with two months we had rolled out these improvements to all 250 stores. With little variation the improvements in efficiency and morale were astonishing. The lack of a change paradox meant that we could make game changing, sustainable improvements with great success.

The Change Paradox

The change paradox that we experienced was very real. Most worrisome and troublesome was that the paradox started, and ended, with the CEO. It’s one thing to want change but you have to have the self realization that you may be the one inhibiting the very change that you say that you want.

Leadership positions can be very powerful. You must self reflect and determine whether you are going to lead and sponsor change, or if you are going to hamper and undermine change. You can be very effective at supporting or blocking change, but you can’t do both simultaneously.

That is the change paradox. And it is perhaps one of the single biggest reasons why change efforts suffer, fail, and falter.

The change paradox was another case for The Supply Chain Detective™.

Originally published on September 28, 2021.