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The Change Conundrum

There isn't an industry on the planet experiencing more rapid and more persistent change than the custom installation business.

There isn’t an industry on the planet experiencing more rapid and more persistent change than the custom installation business. While this may, in the end, be for the greater good, it does pose some serious challenges.
Change yields both opportunity and peril, which often ignites the entrepreneurial spirit, but just because we’re eager to take the challenge doesn’t mean we are really up to doing so. Our ability to predict, react to, plan for, and execute change can have a huge affect on the success of our organizations.

The underlying theme of this series of articles has been maximizing the reliability of your operation. You must be able to rely upon the value your company produces, and so must your clients, your employees, and your partners. Relentless change makes this goal of reliable performance very elusive, indeed.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Change is a pain in the neck. It always has been, and it always will be. It’s terribly inefficient to invest all of the time and effort into doing something well and just as the new methods or technology begins to be profitable, it all has to change again. If the whole idea of investing is to reap future (profit) reward, then it seems like a bad investment when it’s all going to fly out the window with the next change.
It’s far worse if the change doesn’t go smoothly. Unfortunately, constant change often causes us to slip up and make costly errors. We might install a system that we find too late does not do what we told the client it would. Or, we might have employees interconnecting gear using both old and new wiring standards. Any number of mistakes can cause us to undo and redo a portion of our system on our own nickel.

So, it seems that change costs us twice. First we lose the investment that we made in developing methods and technologies that subsequently changed too soon, and then the change led to mistakes that further diminished profits.

The worst mistake that we can make, though, is to try not to change at all. This is certain death when the world is changing all around us. So, if we could just keep improving how we do what we do, and make the changes smoothly and in control, then the competitive landscape might lean more in our favor. If we can figure out a lower cost way of doing something before the competition does, implement it quickly, and not mess things up while we implement the change, we win until the other guys figure it out.

This suggests that we have a two-part challenge. The first is to keep up with the world around us and constantly change and improve what we do. The other is to profit from doing what we do earlier and longer than the other guys can.
This article presents a paradigm shift that occurred years ago, high up in the management of some of the world’s best manufacturing companies. As we’ve found in the previous four articles, much of what they discovered applies itself beautifully to the custom A/V installation industry.

The paradigm shift occurred in the understanding of “what we do” within these manufacturing companies. Many of them concluded that what they do is not, for example, “design and assemble automobiles” but, instead, was “change how we design and assemble automobiles.” It seems like a semantic difference, but the results of this mind-shift so revolutionized the products and the companies that made them, that the difference is, in fact, key.

Once you decide that you are going to be an expert at changing what you do and how you do it, some interesting new ideas emerge, because very new and different challenges arise. To be excellent at “changing the rules” as often as you like, you must obviously become excellent at implementing the changes. This means that you have to be an expert at getting your people to do things in constantly changing, new ways.

For example, you can probably think of a dozen better ways to communicate an agreement with your clients on the scope of your work, but getting your salesmen to implement any of them may be a huge challenge. Or what about changing how a rack is laid out, or how multi-port jacks are to be terminated? Do your technicians do it any differently just because you dreamed up a better way and told them about it?

If you challenge yourself to become a world-class change artist, then you must think of ways to solve this problem. Your challenge may not be so much in figuring out a better way to make something, but how to get your people to do it that new way. How did the manufacturing companies do it? Well, the first mind-shift that becomes necessary is to involve the people affected by the change. They are the ones that do the work every day, and you must truly believe that they are in a great position to have great ideas about doing their job better. Your challenge is to let that creative energy loose while keeping the business going in the right direction

While many managers believed that they involved their people in changes, it was almost assured that those people did not share this perspective. Enlightened manufacturers developed ways to shift the ownership of the changes to the people that did the work. Good managers were no longer the “idea” people, but the enablers of the idea people.

Kaizen gained rapid acceptance as an excellent way to do this. In a Kaizen event, an objective was given to a team of producers, along with resources (money), tools, and time. With all the right ingredients at their disposal and a method to investigate, study, and document the present methods, these teams were wildly successful in finding better, lower cost, higher quality ways of doing almost anything imaginable. Interestingly, the more management was involved in these events, the less beneficial were the results.

Given the right circumstances, your people can change your company’s methods and procedures better than you can. It’s your job to set up the right circumstances.
Consider the quality of the average car today vs. what you remember from 15 or 20 years ago. It’s not really the technologies employed in the car that make them so much nicer today. It’s that they are carefully thought out, assembled without defects, and are extremely comfortable, quiet, and reliable. Something huge changed in how people produced cars, and it was a system of engaging people to solve problems and improve performance–not under command, but under guidance.

ISO 9000 represented another shift in thinking about processes and, more importantly, how to change them. While Kaizen teams were busy figuring out ways to improve methods, ISO 9000 was all about assuring that the business would not derail in the process. This brilliantly conceived quality standard (this is a huge understatement; ISO 9000 is about so much more than just quality) forced companies to think through how they were going to assure the execution of changes.

A simple example is in the area of document control. Let’s assume that you have a standard theater system that you sell many times over, but that you also want to be able to efficiently change that system as components become obsolete and have to be replaced with new ones. Maybe the change to the new component is triggered by a revised design print of the newer system. But, how do you assure, without fail, that no one will be using the old drawings in building the next system? If one guy squirrels away some old drawing of some obsolete design and uses it on the next system, then you just lost the battle.

Many different methods have been found to assure that this does not happen. One method involves document control that only allows authorized, stamped drawings to be used in the process of building a system. These controlled drawings cannot be copied, and are recalled and collected when a change takes place so that the new one can be issued. And finally, small teams of knowledgeable employees routinely audit the operation to assure that it is being done properly.

This is key. When employees find procedural discrepancies, they must respond in very specific ways. They must analyze the cause of the discrepancy, the causes have to be eliminated, and the whole process has to be clearly documented. Your company must be able to demonstrate with real measurement and data that it operates in control virtually all the time, and that it takes corrective action when some is found to be operating out of control.

It sounds like a lot of work, but the work is really only the up-front effort of getting people on board to a company system that makes the process of change repeatable and reliable. Once people know how it all works, and they realize that senior management is very serious about it working that way, a new company is born. It’s a company whose business depends upon improving everything that they do, regularly and smoothly. It’s a company that has expanded its expertise to assure that the flow of change is unimpeded, yet is in control. It’s a company in which everyone knows their future depends on creating it themselves, but doing so in a careful, controlled manner.

Manufacturing companies became experts in these areas, and the lessons they learned in the process are there for the taking by forward-thinking companies in the custom installation business.

Kendall Robins ([email protected]) has run a range of companies, including an overseas joint venture start-up, an established high-explosives manufacturer and two CEDIA dealer/installer companies.