‘Change management’ is an oxymoron

Thursday May 10, 2018
Written by Paul Hogendoorn
May 10, 2018 - As I write this column, I sit quietly in my favourite chair, expecting the phone to ring and announce the arrival of my fifth grandchild. And as I wait and write, I reflect on how life has changed since my first grandchild arrived in my life, somewhat unexpectedly, 12 years ago.

I have come to conclude that the term change management is an oxymoron. You can’t manage change; change simply happens or it is caused to happen. Managing change means restricting change. Causing it to happen means leading change or perhaps, change leadership. Sometimes it is welcome and expected, sometimes unwelcome and unexpected, and sometimes it is simply needed.

I think our manufacturing companies need to change and the ideas behind Industry 4.0 need to change too. Industry 4.0 seems to be led by people believing that automation and machines talking to machines are the way for the future, but what good is the future of our factories if there is no future for our people? Henry Ford is rightfully credited with lowering the cost of an automobile by changing the way cars were built but at the same time, he was the catalyst for an even bigger change by changing the standard of living for the people he employed, creating a market for the products he made. It wasn’t a matter of change management — it was change leadership. And that’s what we need now in our factories — not change management but change leadership.

A problem I’ve always had with the concept of continuous improvement (CI) is that it not only settled for incremental change, it usually restricts and limits a company’s ability to even ponder significant changes, not to mention paradigm changes. These CI efforts are managed by managers. There’s nothing wrong with consistent incremental change, but at some point you have to be able to at least consider a complete paradigm change. Industry 4.0 purports to be this type of change, but from what I’ve seen and experienced, this movement is now being managed by large organizations and associations more than it is being led by people causing – or even simply allowing – significant change to happen.

Allowing change to happen means allowing people – and ideas – to fail. If we manage the process by setting the rules and parameters so tightly to avoid failure, we are limiting the opportunity for success and growth within our companies, industry and people. A lot of time and energy is often spent trying to prove how we were right about something that went wrong – or why we weren’t to blame for something that did – which creates two classes of change managers: Those who never make a decision unless risk is totally eliminated, and those who are ready to offer an opposing view to any decision that eventually gets made. Change is difficult, but change is necessary, and that’s why our companies need to embrace and support change leaders.

This is an interesting time to grow the change leadership in our organizations. The Industry 4.0 discussion and the arrival of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices and technologies, the new attitudes and ideals of a younger workforce, and the challenges of attracting and retaining workers are all great opportunities to encourage thought leaders and bold decisions. And of course, the importance of manufacturing jobs to our middle class, our communities and our society in general. Our factories produce more than the products they make — they create jobs for people, which in turn creates a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose. Change to our factory floors is eminent and inevitable, and in these times in particular, very necessary. If you have the right outcomes in mind, you can lead change in that direction. Or, you can simply react to it when it happens, but you really can’t manage it or avoid it.

When my first grandchild was born, I recall thinking, “how she got here no longer matters; she is here and that’s all that matters.” It has been 12 years of change – of growth – for her as well as for me since then. And, just when I start to think I am settled in and getting used to everything as it is, things will change again... perhaps as soon as with the next phone call.

Paul Hogendoorn co-founded FreePoint Technologies. “Measure. Analyze. Share. Don’t forget to share.” He can be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or www.getfreepoint.com.

This column was originally published in the May 2018 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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