[BLC Pamphlet Excerpt] A Changed Approach to Change

A Changed Approach to Change

About fifteen years ago or so, it struck me that Drucker’s recommendation of using repeatable solutions for repetitive problems would probably work perfectly if we were to apply his advice to the issue of organizational change. Up to that point, we had handled change like nearly every other organization—we took it one (usually painful) transition at a time. Each situation was essentially treated as an isolated event, and the process for making the actual change was pretty much catch as catch can.

Happily, we wound up taking Drucker’s directive to heart, and thanks to his insight, our days of doing organizational change improv are over. Rather than letting leaders freelance their way toward whatever future they want, we now have a clear, regularly taught, and consistently used recipe. Man, did we need it!

Sit back for a minute and think about all your years in leadership. Was there any significant period of time in your business when there wasn’t a change taking place? I doubt that barely a week goes by without at least some moderately meaningful shift: a manager leaves and another is brought in to fill the void, a new product line comes on board a recipe is upgraded, a big new competitor opens across town, the federal government changes its import regulations, the local health department alters its sanitation standards. You get the idea. Seriously, if you can find me five weeks out of fifty-two in which some significant shift doesn’t take place, I’ll buy you a donut sundae at the Roadhouse.

With that Drucker-driven insight in mind, it struck me as somewhat strange that even in our own process-focused organization, we’d never developed the same sort of repeatable “recipe” for change as we had for service and so many other aspects of our work. We taught cashiers how to accurately count change back to customers, but we’d never come up with a way for our managers (or anyone else) to effectively make a change in the organization.

Enter Stas’ Kazmierski. Stas’ has the sort of wisdom about organizational change that Julia Child had about cooking. Although their presentation styles differ greatly—Julia was the epitome of ebullience Stas’ is subtle and soft-spoken—like her, he’s a font of knowledge in his field while remaining a marvelously modest person, never presuming to know more than others around him. In both cases, their work has changed the world.

Born in Detroit, Stas’ spent some time teaching high school and then took a job at Ford for a long while as an internal consultant. While he was there he engaged social psychologist Ron Lippitt (the man whose work is at the core of the visioning process we use and teach here at Zingerman’s) to help improve business systems and culture. From there Stas’ went to work with consultant Kathy Dannemiller. She and her colleagues were known all over the country for their progressive organizational change methods. Because Dannemiller’s office was right up the block from the Deli, they regularly came down to get coffee, and we could usually coax a little free advice out of them while they added cream to their cup or waited for the person behind the counter to froth the milk for their cappuccino.

Back in the early ’90s, Paul and I were leading—or I should say, trying to lead—Zingerman’s through the organizational equivalent of a midlife crisis. Looking for new perspectives, we called on Stas’ and his colleagues. To be honest, I’m not sure I fully understood what it was that they actually did, but we knew we needed assistance, and smart people all over the country were singing their praises. Our intuitive decision to get help was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

To be clear, we didn’t bring in Stas’ to help us map our strategy—he never told us how we should run the organization or what sort of future we should create. What he did do for us was lead the process, which is to say the methodology behind getting people involved in writing our mission, our vision, and our guiding principles, and then the subsequent work of weaving those documents successfully into our organizational fabric. That mission and those principles remain in place and in practice to this day. The visioning work we did in 1994 resulted in Zingerman’s 2009: A Food Odyssey, a six-page long picture of what our business would look like when we had reached that point fifteen years in the future. (See the Guide to Good Leading, Part 1 for more on that vision and the vision writing process.) In the end, people were far more engaged with our vision for the future—we would not be the business we are today without the work we did back then with Stas’. A good 90 percent of what we wrote into that vision has actually happened.

To be frank, impatient soul that I am, I was often frustrated by how long it took to get our whole organization on board and into alignment on where we were going with our new vision. I was more accustomed to the “talk about it a bit, have the key players come to an agreement, announce what we’re doing, and get on with it” approach that was (and still is) so common across the country. In the end, though, overcoming my impatience was well worth it—we did way better by paying Stas’ to lead the process than we ever would have had we tried to do the whole thing on our own.

In August of 2000, Stas’ joined our organization, becoming a second managing partner (along with Maggie Bayless) in ZingTrain, our innovative training business. Stas’ retired in 2013, but his intellectual fingerprints are all over our organization. One of the most valuable tools we got from Stas’ turned out to be the solution to Peter Drucker’s challenge: our recipe for Bottom Line Change. 

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