Make it ugly: creating a compelling case for change

Shine a bright light on what is really going onExposing problems gets attention.  And what gets attention gets resolved.

Yet this is a difficult practice to implement in the workplace. To start, what is our natural reaction when we discover a problem?

  • Maybe it will go away by itself?
  • Uh oh … this is embarrassing.
  • If I report this, people will think that I am not working hard enough.

In a class by itself is a well-known reaction of some dashboard managers. They will slave away all day in Excel, and then expect that the numbers will magically change and the problem will go away by changing the report formatting.

Face it, change is pain, particularly in manufacturing. The tendency to bury the bad news is near-universal.

How do you overcome that pain barrier?

Muster the collective energy to hurdle it.

I’ve found that one of the best ways of mustering that energy is to somehow make the problem ugly. For most of us, out of sight means out of mind. Once you bring the problem into sight, you’re halfway to mustering the collective energy to solve it. My motto for bringing ignored or hidden problems to light is: make it ugly.

There are a number of ways to make a problem ugly. Basically, your goal is to turn a mushy, vague, or in-denial statement into a sharply defined problem with a clear and memorable cost.

For any given problem, try using one or more of:

  • Put a number on it.
  • Shine a bright light on what is really going on.
  • Use visual imagery.
  • Use humour.
  • Use a comparison to make the cost clear, rather than vague or undefined.

Let’s look at some examples:

Mushy: We have some challenges with controlling our block weight on the packaging lines.

Make it ugly: We’re giving away 4% to our customers … maybe we can register as a charity!

Vague:  Our changeover times are not optimal.

Make it ugly: We must have too much capital expenditure money.  Because if we could just reach industry-standard changeover times, we wouldn’t even need that extra production line!

In-denial:  We ship only high quality food.

Make it ugly: We must love pigs.  We produce so much food waste, we keep all the local swine well-fed.

Is summary, make the cost of doing nothing visible and unavoidable.  Put the problem in everybody’s face.  At times, this may make you unpopular. You can mitigate this by using crisp, objective, inclusive statements (“We’re giving away 4%” versus “You’re wasting too much”), and also, of course, by being a part of the solution.

The fact is – ugly is just reality. Shine a clear sharp light on the ugly, and you’ll be doing your organization a favour.