How do you get people who are suspicious of each other — if not downright hostile — to work together on change? David Berdish, 42, an organizational-learning manager, has spent the past eight years wrestling with that question at Ford Motor Co.
In his role as a change agent at Visteon Automotive Systems, Ford’s parts-manufacturing company, Berdish helped usher in production and manufacturing changes that helped turn the division around — from $50 million in losses to $175 million in profits. But it took five years. And he didn’t do it alone. He had to get engineers and accountants, and union and nonunion factory workers, to stop flinging accusations at each other and start solving problems. He had to get them to start trusting each other.
“Trust equals speed,” Berdish says. “Once people have stopped worrying about what the other guy’s agenda is, you can make changes much more quickly. But building trust takes time, especially in a company as big as Ford, where there are a gazillion years of baggage associated with where you’re from, what you look like, or what you do.”
Here are four of Berdish’s test-driven tactics for building trust.
Figure out where trust breaks down.
We had a program to encourage our suppliers to help us save money. If they came up with a design or process idea that cut our production costs, we applied 50% of the savings to their next bid. But we didn’t get any suggestions, and we couldn’t figure out why. So we got the suppliers together during a three-day learning conference, and we asked them why they weren’t contributing.
And guess what? We were wrong — they had come up with plenty of ways to realize savings. But our engineers were ignoring them — our people thought the suppliers were trying to show them up. So we dug a little further.
We tracked the average time it took us to execute a change, once we’d made the decision to move on it. The answer just floored us: It took 89 weeks! We calculated that 39 of those weeks were a direct result of distrust — of people sitting on information or refusing to share ideas. So the problem really wasn’t the suppliers, or even the engineers. It was a whole chain of events in which people were driven by their own agendas and politics, instead of concern for the customer.
Listen, then listen some more.
You have to listen to where people are coming from, regardless of whether they’re UAW workers or skilled tradespeople or engineers.
On my very first change effort, I went to talk with a veteran production supervisor about some process-improvement issues. He took one look at me and said, “You can take your ‘Fifth Discipline’ and shove it up your ass. I’ve got to make parts back here.” Not such a great beginning.
He had this notion that just because I wasn’t part of the production team, I didn’t know a thing about the real work that goes on in a factory. But he lightened up when I told him that for my first job, I worked as a production supervisor — just like he did. He shared some ideas about what he thought was wrong with the process. It helped that I had a production background, but it helped even more that I heard him out and showed him some respect. If I go into any effort thinking that I know the system and that other people’s views are unimportant, I’m going to fail.
One of my biggest concerns is figuring out people’s assumptions and how those get in the way of the work that needs to get done.
I worked with a group of engineers and production people to try to improve our product launches. Our biggest problem, on an operational level, was dealing with unreliable machinery. Among the engineers, there was a perception that the machines tended to break down at the end of a shift, so the skilled trades workers who ran them could get some extra overtime. Meanwhile inside the factory, there was a perception that the machines broke down because our engineers weren’t ordering the right parts.
There may have been a kernel of truth on both sides. But people were so busy pointing fingers that they never talked about how to solve the problem. Once they realized that they were jumping to their own personal conclusions, we could start to figure out how to fix things.
Show them the big picture.
A large number of misunderstandings come from people who do not have an overall view of how their role — and other people’s roles — fit within the organization.
I’ve worked with engineers on getting them to do a better job of pitching their projects to the finance guys. We discuss how getting the go-ahead depends on showing how your effort will cut costs or deliver returns. But some engineers didn’t even know what the word “returns” means. Out of that discussion, the engineers finally understood why the finance department asked for projections. Then they stopped thinking of the finance people as enemies — and started seeing them as critical allies.
From there, we were able to stop the cycle in which engineers submitted inflated project budgets because they feared finance was going to cut funds, and finance would automatically cut funds because they assumed the numbers were inflated. Now, project budgets come in and they’re either approved or denied. But the numbers are real, and both groups realize that they’re part of the same team.
Coordinates: David Berdish, firstname.lastname@example.org
Change Manual: Organizing Genius
David Berdish leads organizational-learning efforts at Visteon Automotive Systems, Ford Motor Co.’s parts-manufacturing firm.
“Organizing Genius,” by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman (Perseus Books, 1997).
The toughest part of his job, says Berdish, isn’t dealing with complex production systems; it’s harnessing the talents of a diverse group of people. His bible for getting people to collaborate effectively is “Organizing Genius.” By taking a close-up look at the inner workings of several “great groups” — such as the team at Lockheed Martin Corp. that designed the first U.S. jet fighter — the authors explore the process that enables teams of talented people to accomplish much more than talented people working alone. The book is topped off with 15 action-oriented lessons for leading a change effort. “‘Organizing Genius’ proves that an organization isn’t only an entity of economics, strategy, and technology,” says Berdish. “It’s also a community of people.”
Coordinates: $13. “Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration,” Perseus Books, www.aw.com/gb
Sidebar: Born to Change
When David Berdish looks for inspiration to lead change at Ford Motor Co., he checks in with “the Boss.” An avid Bruce Springsteen fan — he’s seen 38 Springsteen shows since 1975 — Berdish says the front man for the E Street Band is a great role model for change agents who are working in the trenches. Here are the three vital lessons that Berdish draws from the Boss’s music.
Play to individuals, not to the crowd.
“Springsteen performs in huge arenas, but his music is so personal that you walk away feeling as if he were singing only to you. That’s how I want people to feel when they leave my workshops. I try to remember that people respond to stories that affect them personally.”
Frontline people matter.
“I try to take the respect that Springsteen has for working people and apply it to my job.”
Change agents live in the Badlands.
“The song ‘Badlands’ shows how you can get bogged down in life — and how hope can transcend despair. Change projects can feel like the Badlands sometimes. Just listening to that song reminds people that the bad will pass in time, and good things will come.”