Process Change - Who is Right the VP or the Manager?

Jeff Cole
Contributor: Jeff Cole
Posted: 04/10/2017

Fighting box

“My division is unique,” said the Vice President.  “No you’re not,” said the quality manager.  “We are different”  “Sadly, you’re not!”  After several rounds of such talk, the quality manager found himself in a new employment opportunity asking different questions such as “Would you like fries with that?” So who is right – the VP or the manager?

Here’s a secret – every client a management consultant visits tells her or him that they are unique. Can they be right and wrong at the same time?   Not to go deep into philosophy or drag out references to Schrodinger’s cat, but yes they can be right and wrong at the same time – just on different levels.   

At one level, no two “anythings” are exactly the same (and you may need a microscope to tell the difference). On another level – organizations are made up of processes - a series of repeatable tasks leading to an outcome. In a generic sense, the gross anatomy parts of a process are the same - be it in a private or public company, large or small, foreign or domestic, service or manufacturing, etc. Regardless of the PhD-level of complexity surrounding many processes, they can be distilled down to their grammar-school, building block levels.  (which is where the problems often reside…)

When I was in college, I served on a crew that painted houses in the summers and I have one arm bigger than the other to prove it. I loved the aspect that each week was a different work location. However, the process was exactly the same – scrape, clean, patch, paint, and so on. Each home offered its own unique challenges, but the process fundamentals were the same.  While our VP above focused on uniqueness, the quality manager was focused on process fundamentals.

So for those of us driving process change, how can we best wrestle with the “unique vs. all the same” mentality?   Here are a couple tips:

The “we’re unique” argument may be presented to you for several reasons:

  • It is a smokescreen to just get you and your process changes to go away
  • They legitimately are unique and you are about to learn how
  • They are not legitimately unique but have a sincere perception that they are

Regardless of reasons, you might consider leveraging their statement into a way to best help them with a change.

If someone in your organization insists that their area is different or unique, seek first to understand before being understood – or so advised a really smart author named Stephen Covey (1932 – 2012) who probably never asked anyone if they wanted fries with anything.

  • Respect and appreciate their viewpoint – see what you can learn. Then assess if it has any impact on the process change you need them to make.
  • Consider framing your response as an approach to the change that is tailored just for them.  Even if the modifications you make are very minor, it is important in that this change is now being done “with” them, not “to” them. They will feel the co-ownership and the rollout may be smoother.
  • Do be careful in setting precedents. If you are in an environment that demands standardization, sometimes the answer is going to be “I understand and appreciate your uniqueness and we’re all making a sacrifice in order for the overall organization to not just survive, but grow”  or to paraphrase – we need you to take a bullet for the team or we may all be out of jobs…

Bottom Line -  sometimes we can be right and wrong at the same time and it’s often in our best interest to show that we appreciate a group’s uniqueness (perceived or real) rather than simply firing up our steam roller and brute-forcing our change upon them. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go conjure up a unique argument as to why I should be watching television in lieu of mowing my lawn…

Jeff Cole
Contributor: Jeff Cole
Posted: 04/10/2017