by Dave Gardner
Managing change as a leader involves varying paths and strategies, but can also rely on some simple but powerful themes.
At Tobyhanna Army Depot, one of the region’s largest employers with total personnel approaching 4,000 people, a $2.9 billion annual economic impact is being generated as the facility strives to be a national leader with support for a wide variety of military electronic systems. The depot now utilizes a business plan laced with process improvement and lean six sigma strategies as the workforce strives to reduce time and costs for repairing equipment used by America’s warfighters.
Michael McKeefery, chief of continuous process improvement, directorate’s process improvement division at the depot, described how change leadership at the sprawling facility must accept that possibilities exist to reduce waste and process steps in almost every corner. To do this, leadership must buy into the concept that the effort is a people business.
McKeefery, a native of Scranton’s Minooka section who served in the army, declared that despite the traditionally conservative nature of NEPA, the employee base at the depot has proven itself adept at handling change. This group is skilled at defining what they’re really trying to change in a given situation, and then making a decision that aligns with the strategic goal of staying competitive with the repair industry’s private sector.
“This is all about people and how they would rather be led than just managed,” said McKeefery. “Leadership must therefore inspire people to have respect for every individual, to hear their voice, and give them the strength to speak up if they see a problem.”
According to McKeefery, these leadership processes create a common mission at the depot. Information about depot affairs is therefore distributed quarterly, as each employee is challenged to confirm the mission of helping the warfighter.
“When an electronic system leaves here it literally has our name on it,” said McKeefery.
He added that, as part of his leading change, McKeefery ponders a great deal about cause and effect loops. Decisions inevitably give way to actions, but this process must avoid paralysis because of over-analysis or questions about the overall direction taken by the bureaucratic Department of Defense.
The delivery of employee performance feedback that is accurate and honest is also a vital part of leading continuous improvement, as well as coping with surprises.
“When the unexpected occurs even the smallest information must be accounted for, and our teams must take responsibility,” said McKeefery.
Traditional principles with change
The ability to adapt to change is paramount for Tara Mugford Wilson, president of Power Engineering Corporation. The company, which launched in 1922, now specializes as a mechanical contractor with expertise in various types of HVAC and plumbing while serving the Mid-Atlantic region.
Wilson’s father, the firm’s owner, is a mechanical engineer and she refers to herself as a business person who has studied the technical aspects of the industry. She also has found herself often working in an environment without a lot of females, creating situations where she had to adapt quickly.
Traditional moral concepts are important to Wilson, along with evolution of some key attitudes.
“I have come to realize there are some grey areas within business operations, but basic principles must also be maintained,” said Wilson. “It’s important to be honest, rectify problems as soon as they occur, and always manage a family business as a family business.”
The technology within the HVAC arena has greatly changed with the equipment moving from a mechanically-based operation to an environment where electronic controls are now the norm. A by-product of this change is a nasty shortage of trained job applicants, making staff retention a key operational tactic for Wilson.
She also has noticed that during the past five years customer demands have greatly changed along with the technical revolution within HVAC. According to Wilson, these changes require the business to consistently update its technological knowledge, as well as use a less reactive and more analytic style.
“This approach involves the use of broad base-knowledge to encourage necessary change,” said Wilson. “I consistently ask a lot of questions.”
Wilson admits she has personally evolved, and living in downtown Philadelphia during her collegiate years was an eye-opener after growing up in rustic NEPA. She also has learned that when failure does occur, leadership should go right at it in an attempt to immediately fix the problem.
“Make no mistake about it; NEPA is a very competitive business arena,” said Wilson. “If a business in this competitive environment doesn’t change as necessary, a very bad situation will develop. My life certainly is in flux all of the time.”
Gina Yarrish, based in Susquehanna County, defines herself as an accelerator coach, equine practitioner and motivational speaker. Leading change, in her professional opinion, requires that the effort first include an honest look inward.
Yarrish’s work, according to her marketing outreach, involves life coaching, psychology and equine-assisted learning principles with proprietary programs to help business professionals and individuals move forward in new ways. In particular, she delivers the equine-assisted learning with the goal of awakening what’s really going on in within everyday activities and to identify the mindsets and habits that need to be changed.
After leaving a career in real estate due to a health crisis, Yarrish began to identify roadblocks in her life that were discouraging needed change. She decided she had been living by “default,” but began evolving in ways that allowed her to pull forward and not resist change.
“Positive change is all about an inward journey to see oneself,” said Yarrish. “One challenge is to make the commitment and overcome fear so that you can look inward.”
According to Yarrish, less than ten percent of the workforce is true to themselves. This indicates, within themselves, they are emotionally upside down and inevitably uncomfortable to some degree.
“However, emotional strength that allows inward analysis and change to occur can be taught,” said Yarrish.
Yarcort, Yarrish’s ranch, offers a safe, enjoyable and productive environment that inspires and encourages a great relationship between human and horse. A participative program being offered takes advantage of the fact that horses are intuitive to human body language, which can guide the participant to look inward for needed change and evolve in new directions while building mental muscle.
“We have created a non-judgmental zone here so our clients can experience freedom of word and conversation and treat the mind as it is becoming attuned to the body,” said Yarrish.
Process versus ongoing event
Leaders should strive to make organizational change an ongoing process and just a special event, according to Carl Witkowski, CEO and executive vice president with Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance Companies. The firm specializes in commercial insurance and offers a full range of underwriting, loss control, billing and claims management.
Witkowski originally was involved in managed health care, and later gravitated to his current career with the knowledge that his various skills were transferable. Among these is the understanding that change often is a reaction to market forces to stay competitive or anticipation of a market change, and also involves acknowledgement of responsibility to the shareholders and owner.
“Leaders must anticipate market conditions and then instigate the necessary changes to be ready by the time the market evolves,” said Witkowski. “This means the leadership must correctly analyze the future, as well as maintain communication and a partnership with the employees.”
According to Witkowski, a big difference often overlooked in corporate circles involves the differences between communicating about change versus actually preparing the organization for what’s ahead. A key segment of this preparation can involve pilot programs dealing with changes that need to be made, and reveal the correct moves needed that will allow benefits to follow.
“Large organizations must prepare to sustain success,” said Witkowski. “Silos within the organization can be resistant to change and there’s no novel answer to fix this, but we must remember any business environment has individuals of various motivations.”
He noted that, in regard to change, 20 percent of people believe change is great, 60 percent are unsure, and 20 percent say it will never work. The 20 percent supporting the change must therefore convince the 60 percent and create the needed change momentum.
Information overload is another matter. Leaders must empower communications and partnership, with feedback necessary to correct course changes.
However, this information can appear so quickly and in such great amounts that business leaders must be careful not to drown their employees with an informational flow like a fire hose.
“We should also be asking if the information being delivered is relevant and accurate, so that we can stay focused on the goal and never get lost in the forest,” said Witkowski.