The Art of Change

Jeff Andresen Website Pic (Staff)

Lately I have been thinking about change, the adversity to change and the proper speed at which change can happen without causing undue side effects.

I am a firm believer that change is good. I also believe that change tends to stir the ire of those who would not have been stirred for any reason other than change … and this, in and of itself, makes determining the appropriate speed for change critically important.

Take what happened to me the other day. I got in my car and drove to the fine town of Waco, Texas, (birth place of Dr. Pepper) to see my daughter play college softball. It was a perfect sunny day, and I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t a nice traditional ballpark snack make this special event just that much more special?” So I pulled into the E-Z-Mart and went in.

I had very little trouble locating what I was looking for. It was nestled right there behind the flame- flavored pork rinds, between the Fritos and Animal Crackers. Grabbing a bag, I paid the attendant and headed to the park.

The first inning had already started, so I plopped down on the visitor’s side and opened my Cracker Jacks.

As I tasted my first few kernels of molasses-covered popcorn, I was reminded of the history of how the Rueckheim brothers invented this recipe and introduced it at the first-ever World’s Fair in Chicago 1893. I found myself smiling at the thought of 120 years of Cracker Jacks – the same recipe, the generations of Chicago laborers mixin’ molasses popcorn and tossin’ in a few nuts and a prize … year after year, box after box.

And that’s when I saw it. Actually I probably would have missed it if my daughter had not lined out to third. I raised my right hand to eye level in silent disgust and there it was on the wrapper … in blue letters, right next to Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo … after 120 years, Cracker Jacks was adding more nuts.

Can you imagine the chaos this level of change caused in Chicago?

I can see it now … it’s 11:59 a.m. at the Cracker Jack factory … the morning shift runs into the noon shift in the lunch room and Bill from Shipping says, “Can you believe what management is up to? … more nuts!” Steve from Labeling says, “How many more nuts?” And Todd from Purchasing chimes in, “I heard a THIRD more nuts.” In disbelief, the Foreman of the noon shift says, “That means we have to put in like … two more nuts in every package … that’s crazy!” George from Receiving, who never gets animated (even when they took the magazine racks out of the men’s restroom) says, “This is bad, this is really bad. We can’t be expected to work under these conditions.” And Wanda from Prizes adds, “How quickly do they expect us to do this?! We’re only human.”

This level of pivotal change is not unique. In fact, I am convinced it happens every day.

There is an absolute art to implementing change. I should know because as a labeled “change artist,” I can tell you, I started out as a paint-by-number-level change artist and paid dearly for my poor sense of timing and bad water-to-paint mixture skills. You know how it is … your first attempts at the art form involve a plain sheet of white paper featuring a perfectly-centered unicorn, which is dissected into segments labeled with numbers that correspond to the colors in your water color tin. You open your tin to find your paint in little pristine, hard tablet-like squares which you promise yourself you will not pollute due to carelessness or the overwhelming urge to make the color brown.

Now, I don’t need to explain the shortcomings of the typical entry-level paint-by-number change artist. Unfortunately, their lack of timing and general inadequacies soon result in the paint tin resembling a cesspool of colors and their unicorn looking like a rhinoceros retaining water. That was me. That was me over and over again. I was indeed a struggling change artist.

Of course you realize by now that I am using this paint-by-number analogy in a weak attempt to portray the change-related blunders I initiated as a young manager … and there were many. For example, as a young manager, I did not completely grasp the level of loyalty fitness members have to the little things that make their fitness experience complete. Take for instance the time I decided that we should substitute the traditional long-standing “sweat towel” for the two-ply disposable paper hand towel that some salesman convinced me would be universally welcomed. This modern marvel of hygiene is distributed via a very efficient state of the art, smoked Plexiglas dispenser accompanied by a conveniently attached hand pump bottle of sanitizer. I became especially enamored with this product when the salesman opened the trunk of his 1973 Ford LTD and shared with me the benefits of bulk purchasing. The fact that this particular brand of paper towel professed to be recycled was only an added bonus and aided in my decision to overlook the fact that its texture resembled that of a stale Wheat Thin. My position was that this was not only perfect, it was cost-effective, it had sponsor opportunities (there was a little plastic marketing window that allowed for the vendor to justify an annual contribution to your scholarship fund), and it was going to be the hit of the fitness floor on Monday morning when the early bird members discovered their expensive sweat towels missing from the front desk.

I know you will forgive me if my recollection of that fateful Monday morning is a bit hazy. It has been a number of years since the incident, and I can’t seem to get past the memory of the front desk worker’s (Martha) sneer as she recounted the members response to my change in our sweat towel service procedures.

I believe it went something like this:

At approximately 5:30 am, Zulu Time, Martha opened the door for Larry, the retired Minolta Copier salesman who had been sitting in the parking lot for 25 minutes, and said, “Can you believe what management is up to? … no more sweat towels.” (Martha didn’t actually tell me this part, but my suspicion is that this is the way it went down. Martha was what we in the A.M. customer service industry used to call a “shape shifter” – whatever “shape” the attendant was in that morning determined which way they “shifted” the blame for any malfunction that had possibly occurred between that time and the previous night’s closing procedures.)

Steve, the software guy, placed his insulated vat of coffee on the counter and asked, “What do they expect us to use?” Linda, who had been working out in the morning ever since her daughter moved back in, angrily pulled the handle on the dispenser. As she rubbed the two-ply paper towel on her face in a mock effort to compare the texture to the beloved sweat towels of old, she accidentally removed a portion of her lower lip with what she and Martha later called the “abrasion factor.” In disgust, Linda attempted to say, “These are bad, these are very bad. How are we expected to work out under these conditions?” But due to the loss of her lower lip, it ended up sounding something like, “I’m sad, I’m very sad. Don’t let Captain Kirk out under any condition.” Confused, Bill, who never got animated (even when we removed the Schwinn Airdyne he loved) said, “I bet it was that Little Guy in the sweater vests whose idea it was … I never liked him.” And Lois, who worked the night shift at the sewage plant, threw up her arms and exclaimed, “This is ridiculous … we only have two lips.”

After all these years, I have come to believe that a manager really doesn’t become “better” at implementing change. I am also convinced that adversity to change has not lessoned with time.

In fact, it is my position that those who are placed in the position to implement change on a regular basis actually don’t. The seasoned change artist rarely exercises his or her right to change – rather they tend to talk about change in the past tense only.

You will know when you’re in the presence of a Da Vinci level “changer” because you will always feel like you must have missed something. Your inquiries related to the origin or implementation of “the change” will be met with a standard, “Oh, we made that change months ago.” And then the changer will offer you something nice from their desktop candy bowl and you will vaguely remember that a change had occurred and you must have been a part of it.