Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Change requires persistence: How many engineers does it take to change a light bulb?

January 25, 2006
By Dick Morley

Most consultants advocate change. And it makes sense: If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got. But why is change so difficult? Why can’t we lose weight, save money or stop smoking?

Many times we think that the problem is what we change rather than change itself, but that is not so. Those afraid of change are like Gulliver in the book Gulliver’s Travels, when he was captured and tied down with hundreds of ropes. How can we cut the ropes holding us down, resisting change?

There are social and cultural issues associated with change. It takes time to overcome the emotional bias against change itself, but persistence always wins. Take the Syncrude Tailings dam. It is one of the largest holding dams in the world, but it will eventually fail. Water pressure will breech any dam over a thousand years. Water is persistent, and continuous, gentle persistence will eventually enable change.

I’ll share my experience. My wife, Shirley, wanted a skylight in our kitchen. Our house is several hundred years old with post and beam construction. To install a skylight through two levels of floor and the roof offended my engineering background. We discussed the reasons why she wanted the skylight. It was because she needed bright daylight with minimal shadows. My engineering genes stepped forward. I made a faux skylight in the ceiling and put in C50 light bulbs with a double diffuser to hide the separation between the bulbs. C50 units are often used in museums and indoors for plant growth, to simulate a cloudy northern sky. Shirley loved the “skylight.”

Understanding how to make changes in a company is not different from my kitchen and the Syncrude dam. A client company was having trouble making a product change. Internal change is often held back by the ropes of constraint. Philip, the director of engineering, and I decided we would embark on a simple change demonstration by attempting to change the ceiling florescent bulbs in his office and conference room to the C50 units I installed in my kitchen. My office barn also uses them and Philip was impressed with the comfortable bright light. It seemed simple – all we have to do is replace some flickering, cheap light bulbs.


And here is where the sordid tale begins. Philip placed a purchase order for the new bulbs. An immediate blocker stopped the progress. The facilities manager found out what Philip was doing. “Wait a minute, we have lots of the cheap, flickering, yellow bulbs in our inventory,” the bulb king said. “They are a quarter of the cost of the growth lamps. Your purchase request is denied.” Philip could override the bulb king, but decided instead to use his own credit card to purchase them at the local home supply shop. No bulbs in stock! “But we have plenty of the cheap, yellow, flickering type over here,” suggested the sales maven in the hardware store.

Philip finally located some C50 bulbs. He trundled back to his office, removed the old bulbs and tried to insert the C50s. Wrong socket! The building was new and did not have the older, large sockets needed, and the ballast was the wrong type. He would have to replace the entire ceiling fixture. It was time to limit the scope of this project.

Philip decided not to change the conference room lights, and instead just change the lights in his own office. With his lighting fixture tools in hand he started the replacement procedure but quickly learned that, according to the labour union, they were the fixture people.

Philip was persistent, and decided to do the experiment at home. He knew that I had installed a kitchen unit using the bulbs to simulate a skylight. He had forgotten that I had persistently communicated the faux skylight
concept for several weeks before my wife agreed to the concept.

Foolish Philip went home and put the lamps in the kitchen without selling the concept first. His wife hated the new lamps and he was forced to replace them with the cheap, flickering, yellow lights. He retired to his garage, where he finally installed the bulbs. They work fine and show up his car scratches well.

There are some lessons to be learned from Philip’s experience. First, change is difficult. The change we thought would be easy turned out to be hard, not because of the item being changed but because of a lack of communication and embedded culture. Maybe Philip should have used PowerPoint to convince his wife.
Second, before implementing change, communicate with all stakeholders. Perhaps if Philip had prepared arguments to persuade his facilities manager and his wife that these lights were a good idea, he would have a bright conference room, office and kitchen today.

Third, persistence is needed. Philip did eventually get his lights, albeit not in the room he wanted. But sometimes compromise is necessary – another valuable lesson. We will continue with the experiment and see what happens at the client company.

The bottom line is that culture will remain resistant to change, but know that persistence always wins.

Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek. E-mail him at”

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