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Top Down or Bottom Up

Posted by admin on June 24, 2014

When we worked at another consulting company we had a colleague who focused on large change initiatives with automotive clients.  His belief was that you had to get the whole organization to adopt the new process from the very beginning or it would fail.  We call this a top-down change because it is being directed by the corporate headquarters and usually carries the threat of sanctions if the process is not implemented in a timely fashion in every facility.  These initiatives had uneven and usually short-term results because there was no buy-in by the local operations.  When the project failed to achieve its objectives, the corporate offices moved on to the next initiative hoping that something would stick and bear fruit.

We’ve had much more success with a bottom-up approach to implementing change.  In this approach one department or manufacturing plant becomes a test bed for implementation.  This tight focus allows us to customize the implementation and measure success of the program.  It usually isn’t long before the leaders of the department or plant are telling their colleagues how well things are going.  We then start work with another department or plant, which multiplies into other facilities.  Eventually, we are achieving the results that were hoped for in a top-down initiative. 

Here are some key reasons why the bottom-up approach works better than the top-down approach:

Size – All initiatives require people to change what they do or how they do it.  It is much easier to get a few hundred or a thousand people to change in a bottom-up approach than it is to get 50,000 people to change in a top-down approach. 

Leadership – Employees tend to have greater connection to their local managers than they do to someone in headquarters who they see once a year (if that often).  Effective leaders can leverage these closer relationships to explain why change is necessary and can create an environment that provides the support to try a new approach.

Commitment – If leaders have done an effective job in positioning the change effort and giving employees the tools they need, there will be greater commitment.  There will also be the commitment of the plant leadership to succeed because it is their reputations that are on the line with their bosses.

Competition – While it is true that everyone in a company should be pulling the oars in the same direction to achieve results, it is also true that there is competition among plants for resources and recognition.  This is not a bad thing because it keeps everyone focused on improving.  As soon as other plants learn that one plant is achieving results with a new approach they want to know about it.  We have been asked to share what we are doing at one plant for division and corporate meetings so others can learn about and apply the same approach.

Corporate Support – While the bottom-up approach is the polar opposite of the top-down approach, there are some areas where corporate support can be helpful.  One is the buy-in of a division head (or higher).  This gives the plant leadership cover to try the new approach without repercussions.  It also helps if the initiative reinforces the company’s mission statement or some corporate objectives so the plant leadership can show that the initiative is not “off strategy”.

Top-down change initiatives are not necessarily destined to fail.  But we have seen much more success with the bottom-up approach that achieves results in one area that can be documented and transferred throughout the company.