International Journal of HRD Practice, Policy and Research 2018, Vol 3 No 1: 59-72
doi: 10.22324/ijhrdppr.3.104

Conversations About Change: Leading and Managing Change at CaseX

Bob Morton, ODHRM Consultants Ltd
Rick Holden, Liverpool Business School

Abstract

That organizational change is problematic and challenging is generally acknowledged. Yet there remains a dearth of real, industry, and organizationally based case studies addressing problems, pathways, and practice experience. This article provides a reflective account of practice in relation to the leadership and management of organizational change within one part of a global chemical manufacturing company. The context in which a major programme of change was acknowledged as necessary is explained. The article then focuses on the culture change aspects, identified as critical if a range of structural, technical, and process changes were to be achieved successfully. Drawing on the experiences of senior managers involved in the change process, together with a consultant engaged as an external change agent, the article provides a rich picture discussion of key issues and themes, tensions, and questions regarding the leadership and management of the change. Conversations about change were central to the programme of culture change, providing the basis for critical connections to be made regarding workforce involvement, values, learning, and knowledge flow. Importantly, the account presented reveals the significance of the leadership team and a scenario which over time saw the emergence of a more collaborative approach to the management of the change process.

Key Words: culture change, workforce involvement, shared leadership, chemical sector

Introduction

This article offers a reflective account of practice in relation to the leadership and management of organizational change. Specifically, it focuses upon a change management journey taken by one UK plant within a multi-national chemical manufacturing company. Respecting concerns over confidentiality we cannot reveal the exact name of the particular plant nor its parent company and so will simply refer to it as ‘CaseX’ throughout this paper.

The article is in three parts. The first seeks to explain, in outline terms, the culture change journey taken by CaseX between 2013 and 2016. Part 2 draws on more reflective considerations and seeks to move the account from a record of the journey to a ‘rich’ picture discussion of key issues and themes, tensions and questions regarding the change. The third part presents an ‘Editorial Discussion’ which seeks to draw a summative interpretation of this account of organizational change. The paper is sourced from discussions with three members of the senior leadership team formed to drive the change at CaseX, the consultant involved as ‘external change agent’ with the change project from 2014 onwards, and relevant company documentation produced during this period. The paper reflects a joint enterprise between those involved in the discussions together with the Journal Editor.

Part 1: Background and Overview
Background

CaseX’s parent company operates in over 80 countries worldwide. CaseX is a large well established plant in the UK but one with a recent history of takeover and acquisition. When acquired by its current owner in 2009 it was a site with a workforce of approximately 950. The plant is engaged in the manufacture of products used to enhance industrial processing in various industries.

Whilst CaseX’s corporate head office (located in mainland Europe) acknowledged that the overall performance of the plant was poor and had been starved of investment, it recognized its potential and the site fitted in with its overall organizational strategy. Senior management at the corporate head office recognized that major change was needed. However, whilst investment and restructuring were deemed necessary, there was a level of uncertainty as to the detailed nature of the plant’s problems and thus no clear basis from which to develop a plan on how best to address the problems.

A consultant led review of operations, led by corporate head office, had effectively identified the main technical and process needs for the site to be profitable. The question was the leadership and implementation of the plans. Senior management within the UK recognized that, in addition to these technical and process needs, and the significant investment plans, a different approach to implementation was required. The appointment of a new site director (SD) in 2013, recruited from another company site in the UK (also an acquisition in 2009), was both symbolically and strategically significant. It was an acknowledgement from the most senior levels of the company that change at CaseX required leading from someone experienced in the sort of site reflected in the case study plant. Strategically, the new SD established certain ‘modus operandi’ principles in negotiation with the corporate head office. The history and the current characteristics of the site had to be acknowledged and taken on board. Critically the SD and the leadership at CaseX would be given autonomy. Change would not be imposed via a consultant led, corporate approach to the organizational change needed. The SD would determine the most appropriate leadership team to operate over coming years and any change programme would be internally driven. CaseX would be the ‘masters of its own destiny’.

In the first quarter of 2013, a three-year operational improvement programme (and based on the technical review of operation noted above) was announced. This signalled the commencement of significant change at the site. The improvement programme’s objectives were to achieve a transformation of the site to become a lean and reliable supplier and successful cost leader (constantly improving the cost structure to keep ahead of competition) with the agility to respond to customer and market needs. A significant capital investment programme was earmarked for the site to replace outdated equipment, introduce new technologies, change operational processes, and make the site safer. The introduction of 365 day working combined with a significant headcount reduction was a further key element of the programme’s objectives and aspirations.

Culture change
The weeks and months following the announcement of the operational improvement programme were an intense period of ‘conversations’ about change. The SD formed a small leadership group (‘think tank’) to brainstorm the way forward. This included the improvement programme manager (also an émigré from another UK plant), the plant’s HR manager and a consultant who had worked extensively with the two senior managers in the years preceding the acquisition by the CaseX parent company. Whilst organization culture had featured — almost as an afterthought — in the original head office led review, it quickly became central to the leadership group’s thinking. Culture change was where the change programme needed to start … and not with the somewhat simplistic ‘guide to culture change’ evident in the consultancy review, but with a much more nuanced, sensitive and intellectually informed approach to such practice.

The transformation of CaseX needed to be sustainable and be achieved in a way that equipped the people with agility to quickly adapt and cope with future changes. Critically a shift to a high-performance culture was required; a culture where the workforce as a whole performed as a well-disciplined team, where everyone was accountable and taking ownership to deliver results against shared goals. The approach needed to be one of planned involvement to gain commitment and engagement in the change process and to embed the skills of change. The change process commenced with a diagnostic phase to develop situational awareness for the change programme and subsequent analysis enabled the design of the change strategy.

Achievements, 2016

An internal document produced in 2016 asked “How do we know that change is happening?” It acknowledged that culture change is a complex and longitudinal process and change takes place over time but summed up progress to date as follows:

Most of the time, you can feel change and see it: anecdotal evidence shows that our people are behaving differently, you hear different language being used every day, stakeholders and customers are commenting on the changes they are observing. The level of participation in projects is increasing and there is active involvement and contributions to workshops and local initiatives to improve work methods and effectiveness (CaseX, 2016).

This assessment was supported by a range of quantitative and qualitative evidence, for example:

  • The successful conclusion of a complex consultation on headcount reduction, job changes, working arrangements, and terms and conditions.
  • The increase in the Guiding Coalition (see below) from its initial size of under 30 employees to a group of over 350 drawn from all levels of the organization.
  • People who were “problem people” in the old organization are becoming stars and flourishing in the new organization where they enjoy the engagement, participation, accountability, and their voice getting heard.

– Performance data Indicating:
-Production capacity increases by over 10% at the same time as the site headcount reduces by over 20%.
-30% reduction in samples tested as a result of Quality Control and Production working together at a local level to identify process and organizational improvements.
-Customer complaints decreased from 105 in Q1, 2015 to 55 in Q4 of the same year.
-Transfer of 25 ideas from a series of collaborative workshops, and with an estimated value of over 50 million Euros, into the strategic plans for 2016, 2017 and beyond.

Change at the site has commanded attention elsewhere within CaseX’s parent company. The plant has been presented with two corporate awards; one from the national trade association and one from CaseX itself. In addition, the HR Manager presented an evidence based ‘organizational change’ story to one of the European corporate conferences.
This summative record of the change journey to date provides the basis for a more rigorous consideration of some of the key features of the change process, in terms of the wider debate about the difficulties and challenges facing any organization seeking to engage in the practice of organizational change.

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