Tamara Olsen: Leading a Transformation from the Front Line

When undertaking transformation efforts, companies often fail to fully engage the front line. Tamara Olsen, a partner with Bain's Performance Improvement practice, discusses why the front line is critical to the success of a transformation effort, and outlines a few principles that line managers can follow to succeed.

Read the Bain Brief: When the Front Line Should Lead a Major Transformation

Read the transcript below.

TAMARA OLSEN: Bain research shows that only 12% of companies fully accomplish what they set out to do when they undertake transformations. Why is that? Why do most companies fail? These disappointing results really tie back [to the fact] that the front line has not been engaged in leading the transformation.

A line-led approach really unleashes the full power of the organization. You have senior executives that set the ultimate goals and decide the major actions to achieve those goals. You have line leaders that are empowered and have the authority and accountability to make the decisions on how exactly to execute against that, and ultimately achieve the full ambition of the program.

Two ingredients are absolutely necessary to succeed in line-led transformations. Number one, intent. It has to be incredibly clear what the ultimate goals are for the transformation. There has to be empowerment of the front line to achieve that goal, and they have to have a sense of urgency.

Second, there has to be clear accountability. The line needs to have clear marching orders, they need to have aligned incentives and there have to be consequences that they know will occur if they don't meet them. They also have to have transparency into how things are going, using things like digital dashboards to have real-time visibility into what's on and off track to be able to course correct.

So when should companies use a line-led approach? We find that in cost-cutting, having those line executives lead the way—because they're on the front lines and really have more insight into how things work and can make those day-to-day trade-offs—is absolutely the way to go.

So if you are a line manager, there are a few principles you need to follow to really lead these transformations. Number one, behave like an owner. Think about every dollar as your dollar and don't let the current ways of doing things constrain you.

Number two, not every dollar is equal. Apply a strategic lens. You know which costs are going to really matter to the customers and where you can cut back. Number three, you have to shape the organization from the future back. Know where you're trying to get to, so that when challenges come your way, you can course correct.

Number four, you need to really reengineer the work and not let current ways of doing things constrain you. Break some glass. And finally, you need to change the culture to keep costs from coming back in.

When mobilized for the transformation effort, frontline employees will actually advance the cause and lead the way rather than resist the changes that lie ahead.

Read the Bain Brief: When the Front Line Should Lead a Major Transformation