If you have been in business very long, you know that all information comes with a “born on” date. It may work today, but will it work tomorrow?

In organizations, change is inevitable. And leaders need to manage that change so everyone, including the next generation of leaders, has the best and latest information to deal with it successfully.

Think about it. If nothing changed, we wouldn’t need leaders. Your team could just show up tomorrow and everything would go flawlessly. No surprises, no bumps in the road — they’ll just do what they did yesterday, and they’ll be fine.

But business doesn’t work that way. Even if you are putting lug nuts on a car in an assembly line, there’s going to come a day when somebody figures out a better way to do that. Or who knows, maybe lug nuts become obsolete. What then?

Teaching your entire team how to manage change is a critical component for a successful legacy. Failing to teach future leadership this crucial skill is a recipe for failure.

Laying the Groundwork

And in the pool/spa and aquatics industries, our work is not done by rote. Every pool is different. Every contractor is different. Products used in each installation are different. So by definition, managing change requires unique solutions.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, father of the Total Quality Management movement in the U.S., said that 94% of all workplace problems are not the fault of workers, but rather the system in which they work. His research indicated that people will do what they need to do if you create a structure that encourages them to do it.

At my former company, we followed Dr. Deming’s advice by developing the System Solution Process, a kind of situation report. It was a process and a single place where anyone in our organization could submit an idea about how to improve something we were doing (or not doing). It was much more than a gripe session or even a suggestion box. It was a formal review process around ideas for improvement. We laid out the issues and why they were important. We talked about all the things that impact this issue. We asked “What are all the ways that we might solve this problem?” Then we made recommendations for going forward.

We brought our team together every 30 days to review the situation reports and discuss opportunities for improvement. The first question was, “Do we have enough information to make a knowledgeable decision?” If not, we’d put together a subject matter expert team to collect additional information. That process might include a lunch-and-learn on the subject, research, engineering work, calculations, etc. Then all the new information was brought to the next monthly meeting.

At this point, we asked, “Now do we have enough information to make a knowledgeable decision?” If the answer was “yes,” we would update our relevant procedures and materials to affect the change. Then we carefully documented the entire process of instituting the change, including recordings all of our conversations on the matter. We archived it in the one accessible place where we stored our institutional knowledge, which I call your toolbox and addressed in my previous column.

When a new employee joined the firm a year or two after we made this change, they could access all the information and better understand why we implemented a particular practice. If they wanted to take a deep dive into the whole process, they could listen to the actual recorded conversations from the firm’s top engineers and project managers about how we arrived at the ultimate decision.

Over 12 years, we completed 3,200 situation reports. In the beginning, I initiated a majority of these changes. During this period, I owned most of the firm’s institutional knowledge. But at the end of that 12 years, the team was identifying and completing almost all the opportunities for improvement. The company was making dramatic improvements without me having to be the impetus or provide the ideas. At that point, they were the owners of the institutional knowledge.

Over time, the process became more ingrained in the culture, and more people took responsibility for leading change. One or two saw the potential to make a difference, and they did. Then more people noticed and got on the bandwagon.

In the dozens of companies I’ve seen employ a similar process, the light would always go on after about two years — the desire to affect change spreads.

In the end, you have a whole company moving in the same direction, and everybody can make it better — not just the people at the top.

And that’s the real goal.

Every company that I’ve worked with adopts their own style for this process. But there are some key components. First — and this bears repeating — the process is not meant to become a gripe session or even a suggestion box. If it’s just a suggestion box, I don’t think anything ever happens, because it limits the responsibility and opportunity for change to one or two leaders. That doesn’t grow a company, or prepare it for the future.

In a system like this, employees don’t simply point out problems. They identify opportunities for improvement and make recommendations based on preliminary thought and research. If there isn’t enough information for the group to make a knowledgeable decision, then more research should be conducted. In our case, depending on the complexity of the change, we sometimes even performed beta tests. We didn’t want to jump out of one problem only to take on another. And we only wanted to fix the problem once.

Develop a process that works for you. It’s all about teaching people how to make good change and make a difference, so it turns people from followers into leaders.

In addition to helping the company improve, this kind of system helps prepare future leaders. First, it provides potential leaders with a way to identify themselves. This is how we selected candidates for my former company’s strategic planning committee, which I discussed in a previous column. If people showed real aptitude for leading change tactically, and they continually managed change, then we would invite them into the committee. That’s also how we chose whom to approach about taking part ownership of the group.

I think a system like this also helps increases the company’s value. A firm that has a way to engage and empower each member is a desired place to work, so you’ll attract the best of the best.

Can your next generation of leaders manage change? Are you transferring the institutional knowledge to the next team?