It may not be easy, but it is necessary to create a culture of continuous improvement — and change your company for the better.

As a manager in your organization, you have likely reached the conclusion that any significant and lasting change is extremely difficult to achieve. I return to this subject because I continue to see this reality reflected in companies throughout our industry. In fact, it is a universal issue because it is an inherent trait in mankind.

This struggle with change was evident in the breakout sessions I conducted after my presentation at the National Cabinet Conference in Chicago in March. There was an eagerness to solve issues during the sessions, but one overriding theme was prevalent — Unlike at Staples stores, there are no easy buttons that can be punched to bring about the positive change needed in our plants and shops today. How you deal with this reality will profoundly affect the future of your company.

Your Core Value

Most of us will agree that there is a natural resistance to change. However, the most critical attitude toward change is yours. Just the fact that you have enough interest in the future of your company to read this far demonstrates that you are in the position to be a change-agent within your business.

So, what is your attitude toward change? Do you see it as a natural requirement for success? Do you feel, to your very core, that change is good for you personally? Are you equally convinced that positive change is good for your wood products company?

If you do not embrace change, your company will not. If you focus your energies on putting out fires and then moving on, others around you will do the same — and they will do it proportionate to your leadership position in the company. Notice that I said leadership position and not management position, because in some companies it is a leader on the shop floor and not top management that sets the tone or the core values within.

The owner or top management and the rest of the leadership within any company determine its core values, and this process can start with you! So, what is your core value toward change?

Notable Quotes on Change

• It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows. — Epictetus

• If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less. — General Eric Shinseki

• I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better. — Georg C. Lichtenberg

• The most successful people are those who are good at plan B. — James Yorke

• Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future. — John F. Kennedy

• I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it. — Pablo Picasso

• We know what we are, but know not what we may be. — William Shakespeare

• You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea. — Pearl S. Buck

Leadership’s Core Values

I am going to assume that you agree with me and embrace John F. Kennedy’s quote in the sidebar on the next page: “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

Now that we are past that hurdle, you must make this philosophy part of the core value of the leadership in your company. If you are the owner or CEO, it will be those you have entrusted to handle the details of running your company that you must mentor in order to get them to see the wisdom of Kennedy’s quote. You alone cannot make change that leads to continuous improvement (CI) in your company. It will take everyone working in concert to make a difference. (See Second Fiddle Doesn’t Mean Second Best, W&WP November 2007, or view online here.)

Maybe you are one of those with the responsibility of making things happen in the company and you are not sure where the boss stands. Share this column with him or her and discuss it together. How you and your leadership team treat the subject of change will determine if it becomes one of the core values within. Without shared core values as the norm, management cannot effectively discharge its responsibility to direct the use of a manufacturing company’s resources to accomplish the goals of producing quality products, on time and at the right cost.

Thus, it is imperative that you help instill the core value of change or continuous improvement within your leadership team while being aware that there is no easy button to accomplish this. In fact, now is the time to be frank and acknowledge a serious constraint that may be lurking within your team. I call this pain in the neck “Sayno.”

Sayno is the man or woman that always comes up with the reason something will not work. Pearl S. Buck is quoted as saying: “You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.” She perfectly described Sayno, who acts 120 years old. With Sayno, it is not a matter of the glass being half full or half empty; there is no glass to hold the water in the first place. He or she will always say no to change. If you have tolerated a Sayno in your company leadership, it is time to give that person one last chance to change his or her attitude, or tell him or her to leave.

Building a Culture of Change

With Sayno gone or changed, it is time for your team to build a culture of change throughout your organization. How the group acts in harmony toward change will determine how the rest in the office and those in the plant view and accept change. Whenever your core value in this area changes positively or negatively, the rest of the company will follow.

The most important point I can stress is that there is no shortcut or easy button to achieve this culture. The process must start with explaining the reasons that change is necessary in the first place and then to show how change/CI will benefit each and every employee. If you can’t explain this to them, you are not ready for CI yourself and you must start over, as we discussed at the beginning of this column. In other words, you have to believe, so you can convince others to follow.

After you have explained how CI is necessary to survive and provide job security in this time of extreme global competition, the best way to communicate your dedication to CI is by encouraging others to suggest and make positive change.

This does not mean to just proclaim, “Let’s change,” and turn everyone loose. This would cause chaos and extreme disruption to your operation. It is every leader’s responsibility to decide what change is needed to re-direct a company toward existing or new goals with clarity and purpose. He or she must demonstrate leadership in identifying the specific areas for change such as: quality, productivity, lead times, employee retention, etc. Once an area, or target, is chosen as a focus, it should be communicated first to the company leadership and then to all employees. Next, everyone needs to be taught how they can help by embracing change and CI, and implementing it at the target problem or issue.

With encouragement and hands-on involvement, these employees who deal in your day-to-day operations will begin making suggestions for change. As long as they are focused on the change targets, support and positive feedback is provided. The goal is to support all efforts focused on the target. Positive feedback, pats on the back, at-a-boys and personal recognition from the CEO are all ways to create this new culture of CI throughout the company. And when ideas are suggested in other than the target areas, listen and decide how to respond. Never ignore them as there will be a right time to address every idea for positive change.

Remember: No Easy Buttons

The process above is not easy. It will take time, but through this long arduous process, you can actually create a culture for change that will make CI easy. Once this culture exists, it will be natural to have all employees working together, to achieve the goals you have communicated. Maybe then, you will find an easy button.

Tom Dossenbach is the president of Dossenbach Associates Inc., a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. Contact him at (919) 775-5017

or e-mail Visit his Web site at Past Management Matters columns are archived here.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.