How to get the flywheel turning

Gale Mote/Tree Full of Owls

One of my greatest challenges (and treasured rewards) is helping organizations make significant, positive cultural change. The process is similar to the analogy of the flywheel in Jim Collins’ bestselling book, “Good to Great.”

Getting the wheel started requires a tremendous amount of effort, focus and a strong will to succeed. Keeping the momentum moving in a positive direction is a matter of discipline and commitment. Once the flywheel is turning, it builds on its own energy and quite frankly, is difficult to stop.

Harley-Davidson is an organization that has transformed itself several times. When the organization committed itself to a high performance work culture, then CEO Vaughn Beals said, “It takes so much longer than you would like to get it started but once you get there, it has a life of its own. I couldn’t stop it now even if I wanted to!”

Perhaps you and your leadership team have been thinking about how to transform your existing work culture into something more productive, positive, and results- oriented. Something needs to change — people need to be more engaged, work needs to be accomplished more rapidly and with lower overall cost. A renewed sense of ownership and accountability for delighting the customer and working collaboratively together is evident.

Feel overwhelmed? Not sure where to begin? Let me offer some of the steps I take to help organizations get the flywheel turning.

It begins with a cohesive leadership team with a crystal clear vision of what the organization aspires to be and why it matters. When Baptist HealthCare wanted to move out of the basement with respect to patient satisfaction, the first thing they did was identify their core service standards. This was an inclusive effort throughout the hospital to create buy-in and ownership. John Kotter, author of “Succeeding with Change,” refers to this as “getting the vision right.”

Observing behaviors, assessing attitudes and watching how work gets done is another important step. Norms are the unspoken, accepted practices within the organization. These may or may not align with the employee handbook, company policy and the “handwriting on the walls.” Like them or not, norms are the beliefs, behaviors and attitudes that drive current performance.

To change a culture, you need to assess how existing norms align with the vision and goals for the culture. Keep what works and begin coaching out what is not helpful. As an example, an operations superintendent for one of my clients spent the first four weeks on the job walking the floors, on all three shifts, listening and watching how team members interacted with each other, between shifts and with other departments. During that time, he was able to identify where the gaps existed and began conversations with his leadership team about where to focus their efforts.

Communicate with actions, not just words. People will pay more attention to what you do than the words you speak. If you want a culture of transparency where people will speak up openly and honestly, publicly thank people who have the courage to bring up an opposing point of view. Make it a point to follow up on questions in a timely manner. Speak the truth always. Acknowledge that while people may not always like what you have to say, they can always count on you to be authentic and straightforward.

Find different ways to communicate the message of who we are, what we aspire to be, how we work together and why it matters. Use all of the tools available to you, especially social media to connect with the entire workforce. Not a Tweeter? That’s okay — I’m sure there will be someone in your organization who can carry that torch for you. Sometimes, when coaching organizational change, I feel like a broken record. Didn’t I just answer that question? Don’t quit. Be persistent and keep the message consistent and real.

A pitfall to avoid is not communicating the “why” behind decisions and actions. In many cases, front-line employees do not see and understand the bigger picture. Each is focused on his individual contributions, not necessarily seeing the powerful interrelationships that exist. Help employees to see and understand the decision to change from the current hierarchy to a flat, team-based structure.

Allow them to participate in a risk-benefits discussion to see what is necessary to succeed. Organizations that teach business acumen, decision making and conflict resolution skills are more effective in creating a culture of ownership and accountability.

Provide ongoing feedback, share successes along with lessons learned and celebrate progress. Getting the flywheel turning is hard work and people need to know their hard work is making a difference. Celebrate what you want to see more of and remember that little things mean a lot. Help people to see how the new ways in which they are working together is helping the customer, the company, their colleagues and themselves. Aggressively attack obstacles and barriers to keep the momentum moving in the right direction.

You set the flywheel in motion with a sense of urgency and a clear vision of what the group aspires to be. Putting the right leadership team in place and focusing on the critical areas of the culture first will help to keep the wheel turning. Open communication, training, feedback and recognition will accelerate momentum. Holding self and others accountable without blame and excuses demonstrates the discipline and commitment necessary
to keep the wheel turning.