Human Reengineering

  • Robin Cooper and M. Lynne Markus
  • July 15, 1995

What can the plant manager at a Japanese soy sauce producer teach us about reengineering? In this case study, the authors describe Toshio Okuno’s five techniques for managing major changes in his company. By focusing first on changing people’s attitudes toward change and encouraging them to be creative, Okuno brought about significant improvements in processes and results. And the managers and workers, rather than reengineering consultants, began to propose ideas for change. Okuno’s techniques work as an integrated system that allow his company to innovate continuously and present many lessons for making change fun.

Just a few years ago, business process reengineering seemed to be the answer to many managers’ prayers. Managers everywhere faced huge gaps between the performance of their organizations and their best competitors. The gaps were so large that they seemed unbridgeable by tried-and-true methods like incremental improvement and total quality management. Something more was needed, something big. And reengineering seemed to fit the bill. It promised to do, in one bold, creative stroke, what years of hard work could not accomplish. Further, it pledged to achieve this goal in a rational, orderly, engineered way through cool-headed analysis by people in white shirts.

But then the bad news began to filter in. Reengineering efforts have a high failure rate.1 Reengineering fails because people resist change.2 Organizations are bound to continue having trouble implementing change until they learn that people resist not change per se, but the way they are treated in the change process and the roles they play in the effort.3 This means that it is not enough merely to reengineer the corporation, we must now reengineer management.4

Increasingly, it is becoming clear that the engine of reengineering is not reengineering analysts, but managers and the people who do the work. Reengineering requires committed, empowered people, not simply to operate processes after they have been reengineered, but also to reengineer them in the first place.5 No matter which reengineering consultants your company might employ, one step in the methodology always remains the same: design teams are staffed by people who perform key activities in the process that is being redesigned. So the success of reengineering hinges critically on these people and their knowledge, creativity, and openness to radical change.

Knowing this, reengineering consultants frequently recommend expensive training programs to increase people’s readiness for change. The programs typically include communication about the company’s competitive situation, education about reengineering concepts and techniques, data collection and survey feedback about company culture and organizational problems, and so forth. While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of these approaches when used in conjunction with reengineering efforts, critics have faulted similar programs for a number of reasons.