If an organization needs to undergo significant change, that's a leadership issue, right? Old dogs will learn new tricks when the lead dog — or ape, or penguin, depending on the management fable of the moment — shows them off. Leaders need to craft compelling elevator speeches, relentlessly deliver the message of change, and above all, walk the talk.
That is all well and good for animal packs, and it helps with humans, too. But by itself, the lead-animal theory is woefully insufficient for changing large organizations or large parts of organizations. Leaders modeling behavior and talking the case for change can indeed help enterprises transform. But how often is that corporate alpha dog actually sitting among the pack? Most people in large organizations catch a glimpse only briefly, via dispatch or WebEx or the rare visit. Soon, the appearance fades and the banners droop. The workers, the managers, and even the executives look around to see if their environment has changed, if the tried-and-true behaviors that made their world work will continue to do so. If the environment has changed, fine; it's time to adapt. If it hasn't, then why bother to change?
How, then, does one lead the changing of an organization, whether it is a company, business unit, service line, department, or work unit? By changing the work systems that comprise the work environment around the people whose behavior is supposed to change. Therein lies the key to successful, embedded, and sustained change: alter the environment, and people will adapt to it. Call it a species strength. We behave based on the reality around us.
Eight aspects comprise our world at work and, therefore, patterns of behavior at work: organization (organizational chart), workplace (its physical or virtual configuration), task (work flow or processes), people (specifically the skills and orientation), rewards (and punishments), measurement (the metrics employed), information distribution (who gets to know what when), and decision allocation (who is involved in what way in which decisions). A skilled change leader can convert these eight aspects into eight levers for change.
That is just what Hyundai's Chung Mong-Koo did and the results speak for themselves. He took a carmaker arguably within sight of going out of business in 1998 and led the creation of what Bill Holstein (writing in Strategy+Business) describes as "a coherent mix of quality improvement, design, and marketing that gives Hyundai a clear advantage over its industry competitors." A remarkable feat made only more remarkable by the fact that it occurred in a highly competitive, well-established global industry.
This change took time and far more than an inspired "motivational" leader. It took a concerted, coordinated, and sustained reworking of multiple work systems. For instance, Hyundai established a new and powerful quality division along with a Global Command and Control Center and brought transmission design and manufacturing in-house, implemented many Deming and systems-oriented approaches to task or work flow, flattened organizational hierarchies to drive more collaborative decision-making, made far more production information available throughout the organization in real time, significantly upgraded the level of technological tools available (especially on the production floor), altered measurement to include "qualitivity" (a unique combination of quality, productivity, and customer satisfaction) and rewards (e.g., good pay by local standards in an Alabama plant), and hired outside designers leading to a new approach to design termed "fluidic sculpture."
At another global organization, the Roman Catholic Church, a change in leadership has many hoping for the revitalization of what some see as a scandal-ridden, unresponsive, and secretive organization. What might a change-minded pontificate learn from Hyundai? Do the aforementioned levers of change apply? They might start by articulating what scenes they want to see occurring regularly and reliably within the church that currently do not, and, conversely, what now-common scenes they wish would stop. That work done, they might step back and look across the scenes and ask questions such as the following:
- What changes in the organizational chart or in supporting structures (such as meetings) would support the scenes occurring? For example, does the traditional parish structure facilitate or hinder the scenes occurring?
- What design of physical or virtual space would make the desired scenes more likely? For example, would easy access to global digital connections serve to build a larger sense of community?
- What protocols might ease realization of desired scenes? For example, how standardized should the handling of financial or educational tasks be?
- What skills and orientation should people playing key roles in the desired scenes bring to their roles? For example, what attributes should qualify someone for hire into those roles?
- What rewards or punishment should depend upon people acting consistently with the desired scenes? For example, on what basis should disbursement of church funds occur?
- What measurements would foster the regular unfolding of the desired scenes? For example, is there a RCC version of Hyundai's qualitivity?
- What distribution of information would facilitate desired scenes occurring and frustrate the occurrence of undesired scenes? For example, would greater transparency be a goal? If it is, with whom would the RCC wish to be more transparent and how would this work, from speed of message to method of communication?
- What allocation of decision-making roles would serve to bring desired scenes to life? For example, what role should clergy and laity play in which decisions to support the occurrence of desired scenes?
Watch the Roman Catholic Church. The more that it approaches the need for change strictly as a need to "get a different leader," the less real change will occur, let alone endure. The more that it approaches change as a concerted, coordinated, and sustained reworking of multiple work systems, the more real change will occur...and endure, as it has at Hyundai, and as it would for your organization.