Peter Bigelow

When complacency sets in, companies stagnate. How do you rekindle the fire?

Managing a business or even just a process often leaves you feeling caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s the constant struggle between “insanity is doing something over and over the same way and expecting different results” and “change for change’s sake doesn’t improve anything.”

Nowhere is that more the case than in businesses that build products to customer prints. The implied message that permeates the extended supply chain is to not make or suggest any change to how the product is fabricated or assembled. If it works, don’t break it! On one level I understand that sentiment. However, I also can see that too often that implied approach stifles innovation and improvement.

When a supplier thrusts change upon their customers (when “new and improved” replaces the tried and true), rarely does imposed change directly impact the end-customer. Manufacturers in the middle, however, must adjust to that change so the end-customer’s product stays true to their print. Usually when this type of change takes place we all groan in frustration and blame cost overruns, time delays and sweat and tears on our insensitive, uncaring supplier. After all, the old way was working fine, and they imposed change for what in our view was simply change’s sake.

I love consistency. I hate change unless change is clearly in the interest of improvement and value-add. The type of non-value-add change that continually bothers me is when we must change software platforms – PC or ERP or CAM – making a herculean effort to transition from something that worked fine to a new platform that after that effort only works just as well. Ditto, I love process management and hate seeing experimentation taking place just “because.” Consistency enabled the tortoise to beat the hare, and in our industry the tried and true performers have outlived many of the one-time headliners. However, sometimes it is time to embrace change.

Two barometers stand out as indicators it is time to rethink how things are done, or by whom. The first is when a significant percentage of employees are going through the motions, rather than being fully engaged and driving improvement. The second is when capability has plateaued and stagnates.

Employees who are no longer engaged are really both the leading and trailing indicators that your innovation and capability are stagnating. Engaged people are the creative drivers of change. Ditto, engaged people understand when they are at the end of their knowledge base and, therefore, are open to learning what is necessary to reach the next level of their ability, rather than stagnate.

This is the most difficult thing a manager must deal with. Motivating and developing staff sometimes requires changing how you address them. What makes them tick? What is each individual capable of, emotionally as well as intellectually? What is needed in the ways of training, education or mentoring, either to keep them engaged or reengage them? This is where the rubber meets the road in managing and where we often fall short. Even the best managers must realize when some of their staff, regrettably frequently the longest-tenured ones, have become irreversibly stagnant and must be replaced.

As challenging as it is to reinvigorate workers, it can be emotionally far more difficult to replace them. Everyone tries to, hopes to, and works to rejuvenate staff who have become disengaged. When that happens, those are the spark plugs who motivate others to greatness. Equally, the hopelessly stagnant employee becomes the downer who sucks energy right out of the organization. Despite Olympian efforts, some managers will bend over backwards to endure a stagnant employee rather than face reality and replace them with someone with the energy and ability to help the entire organization.

All organizations, in virtually all metrics, eventually reach plateaus. These can be measured via sales revenue, margin, profitability or capability. More often than not, when an organization reaches a plateau, it is identified, people are engaged and efforts begin to drive the business ahead to the next plateau. The problem is when a plateau becomes the new baseline of normal; staff at all levels become complacent and view their position as satisfactory. This is when excuses start flowing. “If only something would change ….” or “Remember when ….”

When everyone is complacent, you have stagnated. When customers are drifting away because they need what you cannot quite produce, when employees are going through the motions, paycheck to paycheck, you have stagnated. A leading indicator is when people are not interested in rising to the challenge of greater capability of better service customers are asking for instead just going through the motions of day to day events. A trailing indicator is when employees are so complacent they do not care about even trying!

Which brings us to the definition of change. Yes, doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is insanity, but change should not be done just for change’s sake. Keeping people motivated requires reading body language as well as data. Changing when and how training takes place can be a small step that sends the message: Let’s get out of our rut. Challenging staff with targets and goals is a step that facilitates a change in thinking by all. Not putting up with the habitual laggard, regardless of tenure and after continual effort to rejuvenate, also sends a positive message to everyone that it’s about being engaged and improving.

Sometimes a small move can facilitate tremendous change and prevent individual and corporate stagnation.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; His column appears monthly.

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