Levi’s Changes Everything

An inside account of the most dramatic change program in American business.

Record sales. Record profits. Committed workers. Great brands.


Change everything!

Over the last four years, Levi Strauss & Co., one of the business world’s most successful companies, has been engaged in one of its most far-reaching transformations. The program provides a once-and-for-all rebuttal to the tired maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Levi’s has set the standard for combining hard-headed business results with soft-hearted values. Last year, the company generated record sales of nearly $7 billion and profits of more than $700 million. Its market value is an estimated $10 billion — four times its value when it went private in 1985.


This financial performance has been accompanied by a uniquely progressive business culture. The Levi’s Aspirations Statement, adopted with great fanfare in the late 1980s, is an unusually articulate expression of values-driven competition. It emphasizes participation and diversity, accountability and teamwork, a top-to-bottom commitment to open communication.

So what’s the problem? Quite simply, no matter how big and prosperous Levi’s becomes, the outside world keeps changing. Customers are more demanding and powerful. Suppliers are more numerous and dispersed. Consumers are more fickle.

The response? “The largest change program in the history of the company,” says Thomas M. Kasten. “We’ve set extremely aggressive goals. They represent massive change. They’re radical for our business. They sounded impossible to many of our people. They sounded impossible to me!”


That last point is worth noting — since it’s Kasten’s job to turn the goals into reality. Tom Kasten, 53, doesn’t act the part of corporate renegade. He’s a Levi’s vice president and member of the company’s U.S. Leadership Team. He’s thoughtful, measured, precise. He joined Levi’s in 1966, when it was a $100 million outfit that sold blue jeans and western wear, and has since managed nearly every part of the company: Youthwear, Womenswear, Levi’s men’s jeans.

In 1993, Kasten signed on for his biggest challenge yet: leading the campaign to remake Levi’s for the 21st century. Why accept such a risky assignment? “How often,” he asks, “do you get the chance to have a dramatic impact on how a corporation does business?”

Kasten and a team of hundreds — many drawn from the middle ranks of the company — became a flying wedge of change. These activists, who occupied the third floor of Levi’s headquarters in San Francisco, hatched a plan to totally redesign the company: new business processes, systems, facilities. The Third Floor brigade invented thousands of jobs — complete with formal job descriptions, qualifications, and titles — along with a staffing process (now unfolding) through which current employees apply for the jobs. It created a remarkable collection of hands-on tools and resources to help their colleagues prepare for the future.


“You can’t expect people to change if you don’t give them the tools,” Kasten says. “On the other hand, people have a personal responsibility to get involved. We create opportunities for people to change, but we can’t change them.”

In a series of interviews, Tom Kasten shared his insights about the hard work of leading change. Members of his team added their voices by describing both their personal experiences and the tools for change they’ve created. The result is part manifesto, part manual — a handbook for building the company of the future.

The Customer Makes the Case for Change

I look at Levi’s performance — nine years of record sales, profits of $700 million in 1995 — and I can’t believe you’re pushing such radical changes. Why mess with success?


You change when customers say you have to change. One of my favorite warnings about the hazards of success comes from Andy Grove at Intel: “There is at least one point in the history of any company when you have to change dramatically to rise to the next performance level. Miss that moment and you start to decline.”

That’s where we were five years ago. We had great products — always have. We had great marketing — nobody can touch us. But customers were telling us our service wasn’t good enough. We were slow. It could take us 30 days to restock a store. In Womenswear, one of the divisions I led, it could take a year to source a new product. We weren’t reliable, either. We shipped less than 40% of our orders when we said we would.

The closer we looked, the more we realized how deep-seated our problems were. They involved the entire supply chain — the worldwide set of activities that begins when someone gets an idea for a product and ends when that product sells at retail. It’s awesomely complex. We have 600 contractors in 50 countries. We sell 65,000 different combinations of brand, design, fabric, color, and size to 8,000 different customers.


That’s why we launched this initiative. It’s the largest change program in the history of the company. We’ve set extremely aggressive goals — specific, quantifiable targets for customer service. They represent massive change. They’re radical for our business. I signed on to lead this effort after we had established the initial targets. My immediate reaction was, “How can I do this?” But that’s the point. If that wasn’t my reaction, the goals would not have been ambitious enough.

How do you convince people in a company this successful that change is worth the risk?

You create a compelling picture of the risks of not changing. We let our people hear directly from customers. We videotaped interviews with customers and played excerpts. One big customer said, “We trust many of your competitors implicitly. We sample their deliveries. We open all Levi’s deliveries.” Another said, “Your lead times are the worst. If you weren’t Levi’s, you’d be gone.” It was powerful. I wish we had done more of it.


We also collected magazine covers about great companies that were going through turmoil because they had failed to change. They weren’t hard to find: GM, IBM, DEC. We blew up those covers, put them on posterboards, and carried them around the organization. It sent a powerful message: Do you want us to join this list?

So many efforts like this fail. What steps did you take early on to improve the odds of success?

We did a fascinating exercise in October 1993, midway through the design phase. We took 70 veteran managers from across the company and reviewed every major change program in our history. We went off-site for two days. We wrote on easels, filled up flip charts, basically created storyboards of change. Then we analyzed which programs had worked, which hadn’t, and why.


We reached two conclusions. One, we’re much better at starting change than finishing it. We get people excited, charge forward, then somehow the momentum evaporates.

The second conclusion — and this had a real impact on us — was that we haven’t done a good job preparing people for change. That doesn’t mean sloganeering. It means getting down to the level of real human beings. What do they worry about? What gets them excited? What new skills and behaviors do they need?

So we created a collection of resources to help people move forward: videos, seminars, workbooks, self-diagnostics. You can’t expect people to change if you don’t give them the tools. But we don’t spoon-feed materials to anyone. We create opportunities for people to change, but we can’t change them. They have to change themselves.


Getting Started

What are the first steps in a program this far-reaching? What’s the Levi’s model for making change?

I’d call it middle-up-down change. Our mission and targets definitely came from the top. This whole program began when Tom Tusher, our COO, and Bill Eaton, our CIO, convened a team of top managers to work on improving customer service. This senior team created the context for our work. They set targets, gave us permission to think big. But when it came to design and implementation — figuring out how to meet the targets, what the new organization should look like, what kinds of jobs there would be — the “middle” of the company took over.

In June 1993 we took 200 of our best people, pulled them out of their day-to-day responsibilities, organized them into 20 teams, and chartered them to reinvent the supply chain. People had to apply to become members of this group. I had to apply for my job. Basically, we created a company within a company with offices on the third floor of Levi’s corporate headquarters. It was an intense, exhilarating experience.


What did it feel like on the Third Floor?

The Third Floor was a unique place. We understood that how we worked was as important as what we were working on. We had to model the behaviors — the teamwork and leadership skills — we needed at Levi’s as a whole. That’s one reason we decided there’d be no private offices. We turned all the offices into meeting rooms and put up a couple of hundred cubicles. People got a desk, a phone, a computer; that was it.

The cubicles were a great leveler. And they took some getting used to. Remember, we had some senior people in this group who were accustomed to nice private offices. One day one of the vice presidents was on the phone, singing “Happy Birthday” to his daughter. When he hung up everyone applauded. He’d forgotten he wasn’t in his old office!


There were other stories. When we were setting up the Third Floor, someone complained that the walls were bare. So I called the person in charge of corporate art. She decorated beautifully — posters, prints, paintings. She told me she felt protective of the art, that some of it was pretty valuable. About 30 days later she comes storming in. “I can’t find any of the art! Your people are stealing it!” Of course, our people weren’t stealing it. They needed the walls for charts. So they stuck the art in a closet somewhere. Or they tacked butcher paper right over it.

It sounds like a war room, or a political campaign.

We had that kind of camaraderie. The lights stayed on later and later. I’d walk in at night and there’d be food everywhere — pretzels, licorice, popcorn. It was like we were in a different world. I was waiting for the elevator one day when someone got out by mistake. Another person on the elevator said, “Don’t get out on that floor, that’s the weird floor.” We didn’t think we were weird. We did think we were doing some important work.


Change Is an Art, Resistance a Science

We all like to think we could “shake things up” at our company if we got the chance. What makes an effective change agent?

Early on I gave a talk to the Third Floor group. I said, “There are 200 people in this room, and you’re all going to be A’s. Some of you are going to be ambassadors — people who can help your colleagues understand what we’re doing, explain the benefits, move them forward. And some of you are going to be assassins — people who will kill our chances for success.” It turns out we also had a few Z’s — zealots. Some people took to this work like you wouldn’t believe.

What’s the difference between an ambassador and an assassin?

A change agent needs courage, flexibility, balance, humor. Balance is probably the most important. There are so many times when you get really excited, then really depressed. Most of our people had those qualities. We had very few outright failures.

There are two skills I wish we had more of. One is the ability to communicate verbally with different types of audiences. It’s a rare skill. Change agents have to be able to reach people, and they can’t use the same language, messages, and styles with everyone. The second skill is a better understanding of what it takes to work in teams. We didn’t know nearly as much about teamwork as we thought we did. It was a long learning process.

You are, in a sense, Levi’s chief change agent. How has your life changed?

I spend a lot more time in meetings! I spend a lot more time in “exploration” mode. There’s no handbook for this stuff, and I don’t have a lot of personal experience to fall back on. I’ve had to dial up my personal learning quotient.

I’ve also had to change my management style — that’s probably the most important change. Even before I took this job I wasn’t satisfied with my management style. Or, to be more accurate, some people who worked for me weren’t satisfied. I was a controller. I got too much into the details. I focused more on what was wrong, not what was right.

One of my best friends from college called me one day. She’d been at a dinner party and met someone who worked at Levi’s. She told me she asked him, “Do you know Tom Kasten? Isn’t he just the funniest guy?” He said, “Are we talking about the same guy? The Tom Kasten I know is definitely not funny.”

Those things have an impact. So I’ve worked on changing who I am at the office. I’m still aggressive. I’m still competitive. I still want to win. But I’ve learned to do it differently.

It wasn’t an easy transition, by the way. Sometimes I fell back into the old behaviors. Or people wondered what to make of it. “Is he for real? What’s his angle?” But if I hadn’t changed, I couldn’t have done this job.

The flip side of change is resistance. What’s your advice for dealing with resistance?

I have three rules about resistance. First, expect it. Human beings inevitably exaggerate the joys of the past, the pain of the present, and the risks of the future. It’s perfectly natural.

Second, don’t take it personally. I made that mistake. People would push back and I’d want to scream, “Why can’t you see it?”

Third, understand that resistance comes in code. Few people ever say, “I don’t want to change because I’m scared.” It’s almost covert. You need to crack the code.

I’ve made a list of the codes I hear again and again: “Our customers haven’t asked for this level of service”; “Our customers don’t want what they say they want”; “Our competitors aren’t doing what they say they’re doing”; “This makes sense for the company, but it won’t work in our division”; “Our performance is good enough — we don’t need to turn the place upside down.”

Whenever I hear those statements, I know what’s going on. I’ve cracked the code.

That’s how to identify resistance. How do you manage it?

You’ve got to take the fear out of change. You know that terrible phrase, “Carry the wounded but shoot the stragglers”? We made it clear that we weren’t going to “shoot” anyone. We promised to do everything in our power to bring people along. That doesn’t mean everyone wants to come along. Some people genuinely don’t agree with what we’re doing.

I think back to my days in the army. We’d go out for a five-mile run. The platoon would start off together, but then a group of guys would start to straggle. So the sergeant would take the whole platoon, run us back around the stragglers, and recreate the group. After a while another group would straggle, and we’d circle back again. The platoon moved forward in a series of concentric circles that helped everyone get to the final destination.

It’s the same thing with organizations. Your change agents, the people who really see the future, pull the organization along. But if they get too far out, if they don’t circle back, they lose people.

What’s the corporate equivalent of “circling back”? How do you bring people along?

You use all the “I” words: information, involvement, intervention. We had open houses. People could visit the Third Floor, see what we were doing, try out some of the technology prototypes. We’d do conference calls with groups all over the country. We held “Town Meetings” involving thousands of people, both in person and over videoconferencing.

We tried to make it fun. I remember one of our first Town Meetings. We wanted to explain the principles of the redesign, the difference between functional and process-driven organizations. I was giving a talk when a guy in the audience interrupts: “Tom, I don’t get it.” I said, “Okay, Michael, let me explain it this way.” He interrupts again: “I think I get it, but you’re not doing a very good job making it come to life.” Then Michael walks to the front of the room and you can hear the whispers — “Oh my God, what’s he doing?”

Michael, by the way, has a reputation as someone who’s not afraid to speak up. So he begins: “Tom, get out of the way, let me explain it.” Then the music starts, and out come four people dressed as silos doing a song-and-dance routine. It was hilarious. The great part is, Michael got a call later that day from a friend of his in the company: “Have you been fired?” He didn’t realize it was all a set-up.

Is there a positive role for resistance? Can’t it help prevent groupthink?

Absolutely. You have to let people challenge your ideas. We did lots of things to create room for dissent. We hung whiteboards in all the halls — here at headquarters, out in the field — and encouraged people to tell us what was wrong with our plans, no need for names. Whenever we held big meetings we’d put up bulletin boards and ask people to post comments, including negative stuff, that they didn’t want to make in public.

There comes a point, though, where you have to be very clear about where you’re going. The boat is leaving the dock. There are plenty of seats for everyone, but you have to choose whether you’re going to get on board. Everyone has a voice. Not everyone has a vote.

The Human Side of Change

The hardest part of change is the human part. We’ve all heard the lament: “We know where we want to take the company, but we don’t have the people to get us there.” How do you find the right people?

It’s what we’re living through now. There’s not a lot of turnover at Levi’s. I’ve been here for 30 years. When I joined we were a $100 million business; we’re now a $7 billion business. Many other people have similar histories. That’s one of our strengths. We have a unique culture. We’re not about to disavow the past.

At the same time, we are engaged in a far-reaching transformation. We’re changing business processes, systems, the content of thousands of jobs. We’re creating jobs that never existed before. We have to find people with the right business and leadership skills to fill those jobs. We think we’ve designed a process that gives us the best of both worlds. It respects the Levi’s culture, but creates a totally new organization.

How does it work?

We’ve created whole new categories of jobs with new responsibilities, qualifications, titles. If you look at our customer fulfillment organization, for example, you’ll see jobs like process leader, performance consultant, source relations manager, system relationship coordinator. They’ve never existed before. And they require new behaviors. People have to understand the big picture. They need the capacity for leadership, the ability to work in a team, the vision to think systemically.

We allow everyone at the company to apply for these jobs, and we encourage people to apply for more than one. It’s a totally level playing field. We publish the job descriptions on e-mail. We hold panel interviews with people who pass an initial screening. It’s a time-consuming process, but it’s fair. We posted the first new jobs in March 1995, and we’ve filled about 700 so far. We’ve still got a long way to go.

This is real competition, by the way. I just had a visit from someone who didn’t get a job after a panel interview. He was very upset. I talked to the hiring manager, who told me, “This person didn’t do his research. He didn’t really understand the job, he didn’t talk to the right people.” I asked if he had provided that feedback, and he said he had. “Great,” I told him, “that’s what it’s all about.” There are no guarantees in this process. It’s all about personal responsibility.

It’s like you’re creating a new company from the shell of the old company. How have people reacted?

We underestimated the visceral reaction some people would have. It’s caused real stress. People say, “I’ve been here for 20 years, I’ve given my life to this company, now you want me to apply for a job? It’s like everything I’ve done doesn’t count anymore.” If you apply for two or three different jobs, and you don’t get any of them, your self-esteem takes a beating.

Those are the costs. What are the benefits?

We’re unearthing skills and talents that might not have surfaced otherwise. We’re rediscovering our own people. Because we interview candidates from all over the company — all over the world, really — many of us are meeting people we haven’t had the chance to work with before. We’re also learning new things about people we’ve worked with for a long time. Emily Morgan, our vice president for customer fulfillment in Asia, is a person I’ve worked with for years. I sat in on her panel interview and was amazed to learn she had a degree in chemistry. I had no idea, and I thought I knew everything about Emily.

This process will multiply those kinds of discoveries. People are moving all around this organization. A woman from finance is now director of sourcing and production planning for Dockers. The general manager of our Poland affiliate is now vice president of customer relations. A person who began in sales, and later became general manager for Hungary, is a vice president of customer fulfillment. The person who used to run our Japanese affiliate is director of global leadership development.

Is this job-application process something you’d recommend to other companies?

I’ll be honest: I’m not sure I’d do it this way again. The disruption, stress — we took a real hit for a while. This process takes time. I genuinely believe it’s been consistent with Levi’s values and culture. I also wish we could have found a way to ameliorate some of the trauma.

I’m not suggesting that pain is always bad. Not getting a job forces people to step back, look at themselves, and ask: “Where can I add value in this organization?” And that’s a question every person at every company should be asking.

I had someone in my office just a week ago. She was very confident about her chances for a particular job, but she didn’t even make it to the interview stage. It hit her pretty hard. She was crying.

We talked, and I gave her two messages. First, “Don’t let this take away from what you’ve accomplished. You’ve contributed a lot to this company.” Then I told her it was time to think more broadly about her role here. Every job she’s had has been in one area of the company. Yet many of her skills are transferable. Why is she limiting herself? Where else can she add value?

That’s the most important advice I can offer: Find where you can add value in your company and go after it. It may not be in the job you’re in now. It may not be in the job you like best. But that’s what matters — adding value. That’s where you find security and fulfillment.

David Sheff ( is the author of Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World (Vintage Books, 1996 . His interviews and profiles appear in “Playboy”, “Rolling Stone”, and other magazines.

Sidebar: Tools

1. “The Little Blue Book”

Spring 1994 was an anxious time at Levi’s. The new supply chain had been designed, but rollout was months away. So the change team created a handbook to help people prepare.

“Individual Readiness for a Changing Environment” is an informal, 145-page binder (dubbed the “little blue book”) full of self-assessment tools and self-improvement resources. One section, called Knowing Myself, contains diagnostics that measure personal values, interests, talents, and attitudes. Another section, Taking Action, offers advice on upgrading skills. A final section, Marketing Myself, presents a refresher course on resumes and interviews.

In the spirit of self-reliance, Levi’s didn’t blanket the company with books; employees had to request it. “It’s amazing how long people kept asking for it,” says Susan Weaver, a member of the “individual Readiness” team. “We had to keep producing copies.” Ultimately, more than 4,000 people asked for copies.

Weaver says the “little blue book” sent a clear message: “People understand that they are responsible for their career, their path through Levi’s. You are the author of your own life now.”

2. “The Lunch Box”

Question: How do you prepare thousands of people to apply for jobs they’ve never heard of in an organization that’s never existed?

Answer: “Mapping Your Future,” a collection of materials (known as “the lunch box”) describing the new Levi’s and the process for staffing it. It contains booklets for outlining design principles behind the new company, posters tracing the interview-and-evaluation process, even a career-planning workbook. Unveiled in November 1994, it became the most important self-help tool in the change process.

“We have lots of people who haven’t done a job interview in 10 years,” says Paula Piccirilli, a member of the “Mapping Your Future” team. “I don’t care what level you’re at, that’s scary.”

Levi’s distributed nearly 4,500 lunch boxes — 4,000 in English, about 400 in Spanish. Nearly 1,500 employees attended follow-up workshops. The material, everyone agrees, had a genuine impact.

“One sales executive told us he spent 60 hours poring over the information,” says Piccirilli. “He was an extreme case. He also wound up as a vice president in the Dockers organization.”

3. “Graphic Gameplan”

At Levi Strauss & Co., as at so many companies, more work is becoming teamwork. But it’s not always easy for new teams to agree on key objectives and priority action items. Enter the Graphic Gameplan.

The Gameplan process (which requires a full day to complete) invites team members to discuss themselves and their work and to post notes as the conversation proceeds. The group creates, in one giant display, a visual overview of the group’s resources and work challenges. A finished Gameplan includes a team portrait, critical success factors, key obstacles, major work categories.

The Gameplan has become a popular tool inside Levi’s — in part because it’s built around conversation, in part because the output is so visual. “People have taken it up without anyone helping them,” says Susan Weaver. “We have a colleague in Brazil to whom we send stuff. She did a Gameplan with a team there. A few weeks later, she told us, there were new Gameplan displays in three different meeting rooms. People were doing it themselves, in Portuguese. It’s just so usable.”

Sidebar: Voices

1. Lynne Danner, Asia Transition Manager, Age: 46, Years at Levi’s: 10

“I used to be a product developer in the Womanswear division. Today I’m a change agent. I’m based in San Francisco but I ‘commute’ to Singapore. I spend 40% of my time in Asia and I work with people from eight different countries.

“The difference between where Asia was at the end of 1994, when we started the transition process, and where we are today is incredible. The first time I went to Pakistan, I walked into a conference room and there was a guy sitting in the back, arms folded across his chest, very defensive, very cynical. His attitude was, ‘Who are you and why are you telling me these things?’ Eighteen months later this same guy is a real leader. He’s totally changed his style.

“Not that it’s easy. Our managers are starting to discuss what the changes have been like for them — the difficulties, the challenges, the benefits. I tell them I’m in the same boat. I applied for a couple of jobs in the new organization and didn’t get them. I’m proof that there’s life for unsuccessful job candidates.”

2. Linda Reid, Education Manager, Age: 47, Years at Levi’s: 3

“I was part of the team that created “Mapping Your Future.” There were lots of reactions the first time we distributed the ‘lunch boxes’ — none of which I bargained for.

“I thought it was going to make people happy: ‘Here’s a kit to help with your journey.’ It certainly didn’t. It made people mad. It was overwhelming. It has been a big deal for us to create this thing, and the response was ‘uh-oh.’

“Things have changed since then. People understand that their individual success is in their own hands. That doesn’t mean everyone is happy about it. There’s a difference between understanding something and liking it.”

3. Dan Corich, Customer Relations Manager, Age: 39, Years at Levi’s: 17

“In March 1995 we hired 25 people to work in St. Louis on a team dedicated to providing service to the May Co., one of our biggest customers. In fact, my colleagues and I were the first people at Levi’s to go through the new hiring process. Right now I’m sitting in a conference room looking out the window. And what do I see? May Co. headquarters. We are literally across the street.

“One of my jobs is to maintain a ‘living’ business plan. We share information about what’s going on with our products so we can do better forecasting. The communication is so much more open. If the company wants to ask a question, or get a sample, or review some retail marketing program, all we have to do is walk across the street.

“We’re also implementing our ‘retail replenishment’ system. It allows us to anticipate orders and generate shipments on a weekly basis. We’re well over 90% in-stock on core products. That’s a huge improvement.”

Sidebar: Confessions of a Change Agent

Emily Morgan is one of Tom Kasten’s most obsessed change agents. She also personifies the new generation of leaders at Levi Strauss & Co. “Several years ago, when we recruited people to lead this process, I told them they would be ambassadors or assassins,” Kasten says. “Emily is the ultimate ambassador. When you see her in front of 200 people, and she’s painting the vision, explaining the impact, you can’t help but get excited. She has lots of credibility.”

Morgan, 48, makes for an unlikely activist. She’s a 27-year Levi’s veteran who joined the company as a secretary in the advertising department and began a slow-but-steady rise through the ranks. She became an assistant advertising manager, then held a series of jobs in distribution, merchandising, and sourcing. But the more she saw how the company worked, the more dissatisfied she became.

“We were dysfunctional,” Morgan says. “We were internally competitive, one division against another, one country against another. Everything suffered: quality, delivery, lead times.”

Which is why, in 1992, as talk of reinventing the company spread through headquarters, and senior management began looking for volunteers, Morgan told her colleagues, “I’m gone.” She’s been part of the change initiative ever since. Morgan was an original member of Kasten’s Third Floor brigade. She led the team that designed the Develop Sources process, a system for working with suppliers. Then she helped design a transition strategy for Asia and Latin America.

Finally, Morgan designed a new career for herself. In March 1995, she applied for, and won, a critical role in the new organization. Her title: vice president for customer fulfillment, Asia. Her job: oversee the web of Asia-based textile mills, button factories, sewing centers, and other contractors that make Levi’s products. Morgan moved to Singapore last October and now spends half her time on the road, traveling to Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, and other Asian outposts. She visits San Francisco about once a month.

All of which makes her life hectic — little of which seems to matter. “I love it,” she says. “Throwing out ideas and watching people turn them into reality is very seductive. I thrive on it.”

Morgan has a quiet style, although Kasten says “it’s velvet around a hammer.” She does relish her ability to have an impact. “For years I was frustrated,” she says. “I wanted to change things but no one listened. Now people are listening. My marching orders are simple: help transform the company.”

Making change in a place with as much diversity as Asia — geography, culture, language — has been tougher than Morgan imagined. “Almost everyone freaked out at first,” she says. “They weren’t prepared for what was coming. They wanted to know, `Will I have a job?’ Then they resisted: `There’s no way this can work. It’s too complicated.’ But once we showed them how the changes we were asking them to make related to other changes in the company, they got it.”

Morgan began staffing the Customer Fulfillment operation soon after she arrived in Singapore. She hired a few deputies, a controller, and a 4-person HR staff to support the 350 people in her unit. Next she hired 20 direct reports, 1 to 5 for each of the 8 countries in her region. These new hires, most with the title “source relations manager,” are key players: they work with targeted suppliers to improve their costs, quality, and on-time performance.

What lessons has Morgan learned about making change? She cites three:

Context is king: “People can learn to deal with ambiguity; they may even learn to prefer it. But they need a clear picture of the end goals. You’ve got to be able to explain the past — how and why we got here — in order for people to understand the future.”

Check in early and often: “Implementing change is a dynamic process. You always have to worry about how far and fast people can move. It’s intuitive — how are people feeling? You have to listen carefully.”

Be a catalyst, not a controller: “Let the people who are going to do the work fill in the blanks between the `big concepts’ and what’s happening on the ground. As soon as you can, turn over the next phase of change to the people who have to make it. That’s how you generate commitment.”

Would she do it again? “In a second,” she replies. “I’ve got the bug bad. I hope we won’t have to go through something this radical again. But who knows? If we need to do it all over, sure, sign me up.”

Confessions of a Change Agent