Recently, one of our lead facilitators returned from working with a billion dollar manufacturing client that was going through a particularly rough transition at one of its newly acquired plants. The company had recently hired a new general manager for this particular plant, replacing a well-liked, but under-performing, GM.
Naturally, this replacement caused a disturbance in the ranks. Not just because workers at the plant lost a manager who they cared about, but because the new one had an aggressive style focused on productivity and profits versus the previous one’s softer touch. Workers and management were worried that this new focus would result in less care given to safety – an especially sensitive subject in light of a recent serious accident at the factory. This resulting conflict within the plant was slowing progress on all sorts of initiatives and really impeding productivity.
Through discussions with management and the new GM, our facilitator recognized that the group was going through a particularly difficult transitional stage referred to as the Neutral Zone by William Bridge’s Transition Model.
On one end of the transitional model you have Endings, which represents losing and letting go, and the other end has Beginnings. The Neutral Zone represents a sort of doldrums in between the two that teams can fall into when making transitions. By holding onto how things used to be, it prevents groups from accepting how things will be when moving forward.
Endings are inherently difficult, but the biggest mistake groups make is not acknowledging them – so this is where the group at the plant started. The new GM, we’ll call him Jim, took the bold step of acknowledging to the team that he knew about their disappointment in losing their old GM, and even agreed to subject himself to SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats). This took great courage on Jim’s part, and it gave the team a forum for discussing some of their concerns preventing them from moving forward. By opening up more of a dialogue between Jim and the team, they were able to discuss topics objectively and share their points of view.
Jim acknowledged publicly that some people were hoping he would eventually be ousted because he didn’t match well with the previous culture. With regard to this point he explained to them that he had been hired by the new parent company precisely because of his willingness to “be a tiger” and get the plant productive and profitable again. This was a point the old team was in denial about, the fact that things needed to change for there to even be a future at the plant.
The team was then able to express their concerns about losing control of safety, their fear that they would be losing their family-like atmosphere, and that in their new plans to specialize workers team members would lose their sense of entrepreneurship and ability to positively impact the company. Jim, in turn, was able to make clear his goals to maintain safety standards, emphasizing this would not be something lost under his leadership. Likewise, he could recognize the value of workers cross-functional skillsets, while explaining that the efficiencies gained by specializing would make the plant much more competitive.
The exchanges the team had during our program are an important process of moving through the Neutral Zone – acknowledging what will be lost and emphasizing what will be retained and gained. Through this openness, which allows for expressing the emotions that naturally occur during transitional periods, groups can head into the next phase – the Beginnings. Likewise, marking the Endings with actions or activities that provide a little dramatic flair is another important step. The program that we put together for this manufacturing group provided a way to have a little fun while putting to rest the old ways of doing things and accepting that things had to change for their plant to have a sustainable future.
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