Want organizational change? Don't paint without primer.

Three years ago, a local manufacturing plant was faced with the news that they had been selected for closing by their corporate headquarters. The plant manager, who is a disciple of Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” and who exemplifies what Collins refers to as “level 5 leadership”, addressed the employees at the plant. He said that he believed there was a chance to save the plant if they all did some specific things. This moment was the catalyst for what Richard Daft refers to as a paradigm shifting radical change. In the context of Kurt Lewin’s 3-step theory ("unfreeze-change-refreeze"), the status quo was instantly “unfrozen.”

Over the next year, the plant focused on creating greater leadership alignment, encouraging a culture of discipline, and seeking opportunity for growing a continuous improvement mindset. The level of engagement was significant and change occurred rapidly as a result. Their efforts saved the plant. However, saving the plant removed the motivation to make those cultural changes permanent. In other words, the “field” in Kurt Lewin’s field theory was now dramatically changed .

It occurred to me that the change process was doomed from the start. There was not enough time devoted to the first phase of Lewin’s 3-step theory. The idea of the “unfreeze” stage is to make people “change ready”. The announcement of the closing of the plant provided the stimulus for unfreezing by providing a instant crisis to rally around. The problem was that the motivation was based around a singular goal—saving the plant—rather than the more broad goal of changing the organization. In other words, the scope was too small and that contributed to the failure to permanently change.

Today, the plant is refocusing...and taking a step backwards in order to move forward. The goal is to change the culture of the plant and to make that change permanent. The key staff members have to be on board--they have to be engaged--they have to be ready to change. Think of it as painting the walls in your home. If you want the paint to stick--for a long time--you need to prep the walls correctly.

The change was flaking away at this company. Now they are spending time scraping and priming...so that the change sticks this time.