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Structure, Discipline & Change

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Structure is a necessary tool for change.

It has taken me a long time (longer than I care to admit) to accept this truth. I've understood it as a concept, but resisted taking it to heart. But where I have struggled to make change in my work and life, I have also resisted or rejected structure. I can point to situations when I have achieved temporary results by following structure. But then I threw out the structure -- and lost the discipline it helped create. It's not a coincidence that where I have resisted or rejected structure, I have had mixed or unsustainable results.

I see it in organizations all the time. Last week, in fact.

The sales manager started a metrics dashboard for the sales team in 2016. The board hangs on the wall to this day, but the information on it has not changed in months. He used to have a weekly stand-up meeting with the sales team, filling in the data and sharing information. He used the board and the meeting as an intervention -- a way to create internal competition, highlight desired behavior, and celebrate wins. The first months the new process was a success. Sales activity and results went up. But over time the meetings felt repetitive and the sales people complained about taking time to meet. They did not meet unless the manager was present to run the meeting. Thinking the meeting had served its purpose, the manager ended the practice. The board now serves only as a reminder of a "flavor of the month" process.

Unfortunately, the "success" attained was temporary, too. Activity and results have steadily declined despite each sales person receiving those same stats via email each morning.

When we introduce structure as an intervention -- a way to improve focus (and hopefully, results) -- we tend to assume it will be temporary -- and thus, the structure is easier to sell and to accept. We can do anything for 90 days -- even a year. And then afterward we can go back to "normal."

But what was "normal" is what created the problem in the first place. The intervention would be unnecessary if there wasn't a problem to solve. Some situations may call for a temporary fix; others need a more permanent change in approach. It depends on the habits you want to change and how ingrained old habits are. 

Quality management programs like ISO9000, Lean and Six Sigma are all interventions. Each brings a variation on structure into the workplace, whether it be through process definition or improvement. Each also requires a forever commitment if an organization is to fully reap the financial benefits from investments in such programs. Any sign of wavering will slow progress -- and can even stop it in its tracks. The checklists and tools offer the structure. In utilizing them consistently, you provide the discipline. In organizations, leadership is cause and all else is effect. Does your organization lack discipline in utilizing tools? Do you struggle to complete activities on time? If you've scrambled to shore up before an audit, then you know what I mean. Look to the leaders to understand why. Something about the structure has not been fully embraced.

That said, it may not be intentional.

At some point in my career, I started using a day timer to track meeting notes and tasks, as well as how I was using my time. It wasn't my idea; my supervisor required it. I had a nice one -- full size pages, leather case -- and I carried it everywhere. I used my day timer, my electronic calendar, and sticky notes to stay on top of my to-do's. When I left the corporate world, I left my day timer behind. I purchased a pad folio -- much cheaper and lighter to carry, and kept a to-do list at my desk. As my business grew, I found it more difficult to get tasks done on time and to stay on track. Something was missing.

On a routine trip to the office supply store, I wandered through the calendar aisle. I found a planner with a week view and enough room to write and started tracking how I used my time. I use this method still today. As a "structure" working in partnership with my to-do list and online calendar, it helps me be more productive and to keep my commitments. There have been periods of time when I have not used it and I've noticed the difference. With it, I'm more productive, proactive, and organized.

A structure is more difficult to adhere to long term when you don't experience tangible results -- or when results take longer to see or feel. Diet and exercise is an easy example, given the statistics on failed attempts to lose weight. It helps to determine up front whether the intervention you're planning is short term or long term. If short term, plan the ending. If long term, plan for challenging times -- for struggle and resistance.  Either way, leave the possibility open that you may need that structure forever to say on track.  It can take months for a new meeting structure to produce a change in how a team works and solves problems together. Or years for a culture of continuous improvement to take hold.

Whatever the change you seek, surrender to the necessity of structure as tool for change.

Change and the Troublesome Employee, part 4
Change and the Troublesome Employee, part 2

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Thursday, 15 November 2018