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Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Chief Knowledge Officer, The Knowledge Management Institute of Canada; Senior Advisor, Knowledge Management, Organizational Effectiveness, Husky Energy

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Paper Towels in The Bathroom - A Catalyst for Change

I read a great quote the other day in an article by Barry Jaruzulski of Booz & Company titled Building a Culture that Energizes Innovation,
"Work to Change Employee's Behaviors, and mindsets will follow"
While I believe Barry's statement is inherently true, sometimes change can be "jump started" by something as simple as putting a paper towel dispenser in the office bathrooms.

The First Large Scale Challenge, (Before Attempting to Change the Culture) is to Identify the "Desired Culture" and Articulate the Compelling Need for it"

A number of years ago I was brought into an organization to manage a large scale change management initiative, which included building a collaborative culture focused on continual improvement and innovation.

Over the years I've come to understand that if you wish to change an organizations' culture, you need to understand the current culture - what behaviors and interactions drive "How they do things around here".

In order to ensure the "change" takes hold, there needs to be large scale buy-in, support and ownership of the change process, by the employees.

The first thing I did was craft a brief employee survey to help me understand what employees saw as the top priorities for change. Once I had this data, I set up a web-based"Collaborative Environment" within which I created three discussion forums which mapped onto the three top priorities identified by employees in the survey. I also created an "open forum" for other comments. Employees were given 60 days to add their comments, suggestions, rants etc. I purposely did not allow comments to  be  posted anonymously, believing it was important that employees assumed ownership and responsibility for their contributions.

When I began to review the employee comments, two themes stood out:

  1. A large number of employees expressed concern over why management was doing this e.g. to get rid of people who weren't towing the line, and
  2. There were a number of comments from one individual in particular,  demanding we put paper towel dispensers in the bathroom

The first theme clearly indicated the current culture was charaterized by a lack of trust in senior management. The second was more puzzling and required further investigation.

I arranged for a meeting with the individual in question and asked him what this comment was all about. When he showed up in my office I recognized him immediately from the early town halls and strategy sessions. He was touted as one of the Company's best engineers but the new management team had judged him to be surly and negative (a logical person to be released from the company). I asked him why he continually demanded we put paper towel dispensers in the bathrooms. Here is what he said:

"The previous executive management team sent out a memo stating they were removing the dispensers and replacing them with dryers because employees were making a mess in the bathrooms - we all knew this was simply an excuse to implement yet another cost saving measure because the company was in trouble"
I realized immediately the removal of the paper towel dispensers had become a symbol of the growing distrust between employees and management. I went to the CEO and asked him to put the dispensers back into the bathroom. He looked at me like I had lost my mind, but agreed to do so the following week. The total cost: Approximately $1000.00

Low and behold,  I witnessed the most remarkable transformation, not just with this individual who became an ardent champion of the change process as well as one of the company's strogest performers, but in many other key employees as well.

Years later I asked the employee, why this had such a profound influence on his behavior and the behaviors of others. He said:
"What you did, signified to me that management was serious about making things better. I felt you understood that employees needed to be listened to and treated as adults and key stakeholders in the success of the Company. You demonstrated a commitment to "walking the walk" that's all I needed"

Changing a culture is a complex task. So much so , we tend to focus our energy at solving the longer term, big challenges and miss the simple, cost effective change catalysts, which can immediately accelerate the change process and demonstrate an immediate return on investment.

Lessons Learned

  • Engage employees in the change process
  • Identify key influencers and make them champions
  • Your people are your culture = focus on solving their issues first
  • Trust lies at the heart of every successful change initiative - Make establishing trust priority number one
  • If you ask for input from your employees follow through or risk losing credibility and support for your change initiatives

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