How to Unleash the Power of the Front Line

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Most large and ambitious efforts to bring about corporate change do not deliver. A Bain & Company study of hundreds of companies executing major changes found that few achieved or exceeded expectations. Rather, 50% settled for dilution of value and mediocre results, and 38% fell well short of expected results.

Little surprise, then, that the chant "here we go again" can quickly pick up steam when frontline employees hear about impending change. Too often, these efforts develop without their involvement, produce just enough change to keep management at bay and deliver results that are short term at best.

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In major change efforts, frontline leaders should not be treated simply as conduits for top-down communication nor as mediums for ensuring compliance to new standards. Their full engagement is critical.

To produce meaningful change and unleash innovation, do as the most successful companies do: Create solid solutions in collaboration with the front line. Anticipate and plan how to deliver the desired results. And, critically, make sure that people know what behaviors they must change in order to be successful. Then, create an environment that makes it easier to do the right things, harder to do the wrong things and rewarding to succeed.

When the scope of change is big, it can be difficult to know where to focus. How do you determine who needs to change and how? One effective approach starts by clearly establishing why the change is necessary and what it will mean for people throughout the organization, following these steps:

  • First, single out the most important outcomes and prioritize those that will require the most change in behavior at the front line.
  • Then set clear, measurable expectations. Teams love scoreboards when they are confident they can do what it takes to succeed.
  • Help teams focus on the moments when change matters most, when doing the right thing will have visible impact. Work with them to describe a few concrete behaviors that will boost their results.
  • Make sure the critical sponsors at all levels of the company support change. Then help leaders get out to the front line to observe, give and accept feedback, remove barriers and actively support change at a realistic pace.
  • Finally, set up high-velocity learning loops to enable rapid feedback of lessons from the front line to the executive suite.

This last point is especially important. When people know they did the right thing and can associate that with positive outcomes for the business, they want to do more of it. By delivering timely, reliable and meaningful feedback, managers unlock motivation and innovation at the front line. People go home feeling good and want to bring more of themselves back the next day. When that kind of discretionary effort is unleashed, people offer better ideas and productivity enhancements that enable their companies to flourish.

Recently a large telecommunications and media company with one of the most technologically advanced IP backbones in the world recognized that its customers’ expectations were changing. The CEO made improving customer experience a top strategic priority, and set an ambitious goal: improvement on a scale far beyond the current performance of peer companies.

The leadership team set three primary metrics, signaling to the field what mattered most. On productivity, they tracked jobs completed per day. On service quality, they measured the percentage of faults that were eventually reported a second time. To track the performance of the customer service team, they looked at the percentage of jobs completed within acceptable service levels.

Everyone from the CEO to frontline employees was accountable for these same three metrics. Individual performance metrics went out to each employee every day via text message. Every function manager received information on the metrics and could see the previous day's performance and analyze its root causes.

Results were visible to everyone in the organization, every day, enabling the whole company to learn quickly. Over time, there was a 70% improvement in jobs completed per day, and an 18% increase in jobs completed within acceptable service levels—not to mention a 16% boost to employee satisfaction.

The best start at the top; leaders change first. Before going live with new goals, they ensure that their top team is aligned around the plan, that line leaders at all levels are creating energy and buy-in, and that they are anticipating disruption and managing resistance.

Change can be tough. Frontline teams are more likely to embrace it when they know what to do, feel supported by leadership and can see progress on outcomes they care about.

Laura Methot is an expert vice president in the Brussels office of Bain & Company. Jeff Melton is a partner in the Melbourne office. Joachim Breidenthal is a partner in the Johannesburg office.