Managing the Psychology of Change in Upgrades

March 21, 2022
When it comes to upgrades, it’s not about technology; it’s change itself that you need to manage.

Here’s a scenario—we’re contacted by a company to help them with a system upgrade. The client wants a system upgraded with Ethernet, databases, historians, etc. We provide a proposal, and upper-level engineering love it. Then, the project kicks off. But the boots-on-the-ground operations people hate it. They spend much of the project execution trying to make the new system exactly like it was before. Throughout this process, we try to coax the operations folks to see our way is better, and to show them why it’s better and how it will help them. It feels like a constant sales presentation. This results in a lot of rework, because we want to make them happy. And then as they adjust, they go back and forth on changes. Sound familiar?

Often when companies approach an upgrade project, they go straight into the technology, functional requirements, and business needs. These are all very important considerations, but an important piece of the puzzle is missing: the psychology of the change itself and how best to manage it.

To an operations team with production goals and other metrics to meet every shift, change is not exactly embraced with open arms. Change can mean adaptation (which takes time that they think they don’t have), it can be scary (even the best ideas can be poorly executed with catastrophic results, and they’ve probably seen that before), and it can seem pointless (it was working this way, why are we doing it differently now?).

Here's how to approach your upgrade with the psychology of change in mind.

Include your key stakeholders before the project starts

In our experience, upgrade projects often originate with upper-level management and engineering folks. They tend to drop off after the project starts, but they should remain engaged throughout to provide oversight and remind the overall team why the project is happening in the first place.

The best jobs we’ve had are the ones that have everyone involved up front, sitting down together at the beginning to discuss the project. Operations folks should also be engaged before the project starts. Get champions identified earlier on. They know what they want, they’re driving things forward, and they can help by getting good information to the integrator, as well as getting the operations folks engaged earlier. You also want the squeaky wheels involved up front because they can provide valuable input and help get buy-in from the rest of the team if you can get them on board.

The bottom line is that each group has its own biases. Bringing everyone together and keeping them engaged throughout the process can challenge, and ultimately help overcome those biases.

Prework sets you up for success

Get operations involved in the design up front. That should happen before you go out for proposal. Get your ducks in a row on what you’re actually asking, then request the quote. Document everything during this process. It goes a long, long way towards the success of your project.

We recently had a client that didn’t have their end ready before the project work was supposed to start. Our engineer was on site asking questions and we were set up for a return trip, but the client cancelled it. Our main contact realized he had a giant task list that needed to be addressed first and asked for a few weeks to get everything in order. This was the prework that needed to happen before we could get started on the actual development and execution of the project.

Integrators need to drive the process

As an integrator, we see that clients often don’t know what they don’t know. We can help them figure that out. Ask about the system, its functionality, how it communicates, and how they want it to communicate. It’s important to find the key stakeholders who are missing during the discovery phase. Pick the people who are invested and willing to cooperate. It’s a project for everyone, rather than only certain folks.   

The integrator should make sure that upper-level management stays engaged and communicates to the team the importance of the project. Sometimes our contacts don’t have enough authority in their position to move things forward. The disconnect between operations and upper management is real. We see that a lot. As integrators, we can help make those connections amongst operations team members and executive sponsorship.

Think about training ahead of time

Following through with training is crucial and should be addressed up front, as well as included as a part of the proposal. It’s just as important to think about who should be trained as it is to think about the training itself.

Typically, we get to the end of the project and train the first shift. They love the new system and think it’s great. They’re responsible for training the other shifts, but in many cases don’t. As a result, second and third shifts don’t do well with the new system and their performance suffers because of it.

There can be some sticker shock when it comes to the cost of well-documented, comprehensive training. Some clients may want to leave it out of the final proposal because of that cost. In the end, they may end up paying more than the training itself when they have to call the integrator in when there’s an issue that could have been avoided if the team was well-trained.

This is another good reason to have everyone engaged early on. Operations, safety, and even HR should all weigh in from a training and certifications standpoint. For example, training may be able to come out of a different budget, rather than the project budget.

Remember what it’s really about

It’s less about technology and more about change. How do you make the change more attractive? You’re on a road that you’ve never been on before. You can’t do it alone. An integrator can help you get there, but you have to trust the process.  

Craig Cooper is an Engineering Account Manager and Jason Phelps is a Project Manager at E Tech Group.  E Tech Group is a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about E Tech Group, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.