A resource for effective change management basics in manufacturing.

Greetings once again, Troubleshooters! If you missed last week’s post on Six Sigma and one often-overlooked opportunity to enhance your CI efforts, be sure to check it out. Today we’re turning to another hot topic in manufacturing: change management—what it is, the challenges involved, and how to do it effectively.

Is your manufacturing organization facing a change of direction or scale? If you aren’t now, at some point you will be. All organizations need to change in order to survive because the internal and external environments are always changing. Your competition, customer behavior, politics, the economy, society, technology—all of these environmental influences are continually shifting and will eventually require your organization to change in response. Change management is the process of controlling such transformative change in an organization by preparing, equipping, and supporting individuals to successfully adopt the change.   

Change can be challenging!

When an organization has to change or transform itself in some way, that change management can be challenging for many reasons. In fact, researchers have found that only about one-third of transformational programs actually succeed. The real-life story of William Sims and the US Navy illustrates some of those challenges.

In 1898, the US fought and won the Spanish-American war largely thanks to its navy. It now ruled the seas in the Caribbean region and took a certain amount of pride in its naval power. In the same year, across the Atlantic, an English officer (Admiral Percy Scott) developed the “continuous aiming” gun for warships.

Aiming a warship’s guns precisely had always been a problem because of the rolling movement of the ship on the waves. When the ship rolled back, the guns pointed into the air, and the gunners had to wait for the ship to roll back into place to fire again. Percy decided to make some alterations to the guns and the firing procedures. He changed the gear ratio on the guns, installed a simulated target on the mouth of the guns, improved the telescopic mountings so that they would no longer recoil into the pointer’s eye after firing, and had the pointer (a person) continuously adjust the gun’s elevation so that it was always on target and never pointing up at the sky. 

The results? A quantum leap in precision aiming! Think about this: in 1899, five ships of the North Atlantic Squadron fired for five minutes each on a target 1600 yards away. When the smoke cleared, they had made a grand total of two hits on the target. Six years later, using continuous aiming, a single naval gunner made 15 hits in one minute at a target the same distance away, and 50% of them hit the 50-square-inch bull’s-eye.

This astonishing achievement was noticed by a US junior naval officer, William Sims, while serving in China. Sims adopted continuous aiming on his own ship, and was soon able to show the same kind of leap in gun accuracy. He then began a campaign to get the US navy to adopt the new technology. To his surprise, he was utterly ignored. He continued to send report after report to different departments, and when they could no longer ignore him, the Office of Naval Ordnance eventually tried a half-hearted experiment of continuous aiming on dry land, where it is far more difficult to do without the momentum of the rolling ship. They concluded that US equipment was just as good as British equipment, that training the pointers was each ship’s responsibility (and not the bureau’s), and that continuous aiming was impossible anyway. When Sims became a little (understandably) shrill about the whole thing, they called him a “crackbrained egotist.” 

Don’t be a crackbrained egotist

The point of the story is that even when presented with a change that was really a no-brainer—a new technology that would have given them a huge advantage in every subsequent naval battle—the US Navy resisted adopting it. There were many reasons: prior mental models, including the belief that US equipment could not be inferior; the notion that accurate gunnery depended solely on training; and the doubt that Sims was telling the truth because it contradicted their own (faulty) experiments. Not only that, Sims’ tone and methods of communication throughout his campaign, though understandable, gained him a reputation as an insane charlatan, and then no one would listen to him.

If your organization is facing a change, it’s critical for you to manage that change so that it has the best chance of success. Resistance is only one of the potential challenges you’ll encounter—tune in to TST again next week for Part 2, where we’ll look at other challenges to organizational change, and how to develop a plan to manage it.

(Oh, and by the way, Sims eventually wrote directly to President Roosevelt, who did take notice and made him “Inspector of Target Practice.” After six years of promoting continuous aiming, the practice was adopted throughout the Navy, and Sims became known as “the man who taught us how to shoot!”)

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