Organisations are always trying to improve their performance. To be able to achieve this, organisations are prepared to implement far-reaching changes. Today’s world is characterised by the continuing intensification of competitive pressures. The government and other institutions, which are not directly driven by profit maximization, also pursue higher levels of efficiency and improved relationships with the people and their environment, as the requirements that people and lobby groups demand from government bodies also continue to increase.
There is often no shortage of far-reaching improvements in the areas of performance and quality. We struggle, however, with new initiatives, new ideas and product innovations. The “paper measures” are multiple. In order to make these ideas successful in practice, other skills and talents are required. Realising ideas and concepts successfully requires the implementation of bite-size actions, closely-knit and in the finest detail. ‘The devil’ is ‘in the details’. The line between success and failure of change processes is very thin.
Most changes take place on the pretext of: ”just implement it’. Reorganisation, restructuring and change programmes managed just like that, are doomed to fail. In addition to inside and technical knowledge of the business, experience and skills in the area of pursuing and completing changes are necessary. Only then will it be possible to make the implementation, transition or reorganisation a success. It is due to the lack of knowledge, experience and right mentality that 80% of the reorganisation and improvement processes fail. Research shows that the ‘execution gap’ currently is the largest management problem.
How then do we make implementation successful? What is the recipe for making employees and managers enthusiastic for a plan, and for implementing it successfully in practice? Where do the inspiration and discipline come from to persevere where others stop? And to finish whilst others came up with new ideas? How can you trigger people’s drivers in such a way that everyone takes their responsibility across the entire palette?
This A4-model can be used as a tool to manage a change process in a focused way. The A4- model is a strategic framework that offers practical guidance, oversight, focus and phasing. The phases have an iterative character.
Many top managers who initiate plans assume that that idea is the best for their employees. The idea was well-considered, and a lot of time and money invested to analyse everything in detail. In the hand-over to others, who either need to lead the implementation or who need to execute the implementation, little attention is paid to a joint reference framework, language and perception. If we intend to underwrite a joint objective, focus and plan, investing in each other’s drivers, values, norms and resistance will need to be a priority. The people who are involved in the change process will need to connect in order to be able to fully understand each other. Everyone knows that this investment will ultimately lead to a situation where ‘half a word is enough’. There is mutual agreement on the ‘common ground’. To have this effective dialogue between management and employees, all types of communication available to us must be used more flexible. This means communicating with various types of contact, both physical and using new media. Only then will an effective foundation for implementation be created. In this way, all relevant players in the change process will connect with each other, and the basis for involvement, motivation and responsibility will be laid.
When the people responsible speak the same language, the point at which the necessity and need to make agreements with each other will come naturally. ‘It is time to get down to business’. Implementing changes effectively requires clear and unambiguous agreements. Agreements indicate which results we need to achieve, how much time is spent on specific activities, which procedures we prefer, which parameters we support, et cetera. Another function of agreements is that we confirm with each other what we can expect from each other in that period. The quality of the decision-making process is essential for being able to smoothly implement changes at a later stage. At the stage of decision-making, it is essential that we have a dialogue in a meaningful manner. This means that all relevant parties involved in making agreements must take the responsibility to identify the underlying reasons and meaning that parties attach to their own qualifications. These recipients will need to ask critical questions that go further than is usual. If this does not happen correctly, the risk of failing at a later stage will increase. Accusations, such as: “Oh, I did not know that you were referring to that”, or “you should have said that straightaway” will occur.
Making agreements is not that easy. Everyone has experience in making agreements. And everyone also has experience with agreements not being met. The process of realizing qualitative agreements is often an underexposed part in a change process. Many decisions are made ad hoc, fragmented and swayed by the issues of the day. In order to achieve clear agreements, a proper dialogue is crucial, based on the common language of the previous stage. It is important to dare to discuss both the positive and negative consequences with each other. However, group thinking often plays a dominant role in decision-making processes. In order to suppress this, when making an agreement, it will be essential to consider the consequences if specific measures appear to be unsuccessful. The negative consequences will also need to be discussed. And agreement needs to be made on that too. How do we deal with the fact that agreements are not adhered to? What do we agree on in the event that it fails? What will be the ultimate consequence of the fact that someone repeatedly fails to adhere to agreements? Making efforts when formulating agreements that go further than is usually common practice based on socially desirable behaviour (‘Yes, of course, we will certainly do it’), is the success factor in managing change. This stage will ultimately end in a set of agreements, often referred to as the action plan. This is the foundation of management in the future.
When the agreements and the expected results are clear, it comes down to the implementation of actions in practice. People start working enthusiastically, in project form or otherwise, on the concrete measures. In change programmes, the execution is usually a complex pattern of interactions, and along with the countless factual documents, much exchange of communication takes place between those involved. Often a ‘dedicated’ project leader or change manager is made available to direct the set of various change processes. They are usually the people that their team members make responsible for the progress of the various steps and for the result achieved. The usual link in the quality cycle are examples of the ways in which those involved are made accountable for their responsibilities and for the realized performance. Many planning and control cycles are still based on insights and regulations from the 1960s. The project leader keeps himself informed, often with the help of a dashboard, of the project status and reacts accordingly as necessary. Only at these periodic check moments does it becomes clear that agreements are not met and that results have not been achieved. Like a stuttering ABS braking system, the status is reviewed and everyone is made aware of the complex interaction and implicit expectations which then come to the surface. An effect of this is that many people begin to get the feeling that this change process will again not be the success that had been hoped for.
Accountability for progress and results should be a continuous process, which manifests itself in daily practice. Participants are accountable, at each moment in the process, for their behaviours and the actions that they undertake and for which they are responsible. At the same time, it is not only the responsibility of the manager to make people accountable for their responsibilities. Often, managers feel that their role is more that of a police officer than they would like. Managing continuously from a control paradigm does not create the motivation and the energy for everyone to work and keep on working with full conviction. Objectives in change processes are like ‘sliding doors’. Progressive insights and judgments take place continuously in respect of the planned line that has been set out. Adapting, phasing in and phasing out are crucial aspects that are necessary in order to be flexible in keeping the final goal clear. In order to break a one-dimensional control pattern, it is important to strive for a system and environment in which people take responsibility for each other. This needs to be a balance between the pat on the back that everyone needs and continuously making people feel accountable for the agreements made. In this way, the responsibility that everybody initially took is periodically revitalized. By making this an ongoing matter for discussion, the informal way in which people avoid the consequences of not meeting targets is reduced. The limits of tolerance and norms are sharpened and clarified. This brings more calm, discipline, continuity and rhythm in the process.
Change processes are initiated to realise improvements and competitive strength. Objectives are set in order to achieve results. We usually communicate with each other in terms of results. Terms such as ‘profit’, ‘production error’, ‘new business’ and ‘production standardisation’ are images that we exchange in order to formulate objectives and expectations. In this way, the gap between the current state and the desired state becomes visible. An objective generates energy, trust and focus. Somebody is responsible for the overall result and is therefore accountable. In a change project, it is particularly difficult to separate the various responsibilities. The simplest is just to make the most senior manager accountable for the delivered results. Although collective responsibility is present, it is difficult and, in daily practice, almost unworkable to make all participants accountable. Without accountability, the risk exists of maintaining the status quo without any change. Why should somebody change their behaviour, or otherwise if there are no consequences attached? Few people are motivated by a change in itself. For those who have heard of the few uplifting experiences, the ‘honey pot’ does not weight favourably against the effort that this requires. To deliver on agreements and expectations in the day-to-day stress and commotion of a project, it the well-known ‘big stick’ that can do wonders. It is important that deliverables are brought into focus at certain times. The responsibility must be felt by those who actually find the answer to the set objective. Assessment after a period of time should take place in both the positive sense as well as in the negative sense. Reflecting on the performance creates pride and trust, a reward is appropriate. Drawing the consequences in a situation in which recurring deliverables are not met or in which no performance has been delivered, will ultimately not be very pleasant. The organisation cannot, however, justify not attaching consequences for unsatisfactory performance to those who have delivered in line with the desired performance. Leadership sometimes requires taking unpleasant decisions. As long as it can always be explained that it is for the greater good.