Sense of Change

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Electronic Fuel Injection or EFI has been the standard way to control an internal combustion engine for over 25 years. The last vehicle sold in the US that used a carburetor was a 1994 Isuzu pickup. EFI was common for at least a decade before that, and the Isuzu was the last hold out. EFI is more reliable, doesn’t need to be adjusted for altitude or harsh conditions, and is far more fuel efficient.

EFI systems consist of a small computer connected to an array of sensors. Those sensors tell it everything, like the temperature of the air, the pressure of the fuel, and the position of your foot on the pedal. From that the system knows precisely how much fuel to squirt into the cylinder for each of the hundreds of combustion events that happen every minute. 

One of the most important sensors is the mass air flow sensor. It sniffs the air to see how cold and how dense it is. Everyone knows starting a car on a cold morning is hard. The mass air flow sensor makes it even possible. 

In the beginning of EFI systems, mass air flow sensors were terrible. They weren’t very sensitive, they got easily confused by dirt and debris, they froze up in the winter, and the delicate sensor wires made of tungsten often broke. That made EFI-equipped cars finicky, and it took years of development to get them right. A huge leap forward was the invention of a housing that protected the sensor while still letting it breathe. 

That simple innovation, protecting the sensor so that it could properly read the environment made all the difference. The sensors last years now, and they are a huge part of why some cars can get almost twice the gas mileage of that Isuzu pickup and meet even the most stringent air quality standards.

To be clear, the mass air flow sensor doesn’t run the engine. The engine computer does. All the sensor does is tell the computer what’s going on. And to do its job correctly the sensor needs to be close enough to sense what’s going on but also be protected from harm.

The same sort of thing happens in most organizations. Some people, often the HR team, act as sensors and tell the engine, the leaders, what’s going on, and when things need to change. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

This episode begins exploring how to change organizational culture. This time we look who can influence a culture. This is Episode 237 ­– Sense of Change.

Though he didn’t invent anything special, he knew a good business when he saw it. He had just graduated from the University of Michigan with his engineering degree. EFI systems were getting big, and he saw the need for building housings for their many sensors. He got a contract with Ford early on for a mass air flow sensor assembly and leveraged that into the business he runs today. 

The company now makes sensor assemblies for all kinds of applications. They make plastic housings with mass air flow sensors for gas and diesel engines. They make aluminum housings with a variety of sensors for aircraft applications. They even make experimental sensor assemblies that have made it into space. The company has 73 people in the factory and 18 people in the front office. And it’s a good business, they do high-eight figures in sales, inching ever closer to a million dollars per employee. With all the competition, especially from Asia, the margins are tight, and no one is getting rich. But business is solid, and they always seem to find more customers.

As the CEO, he is tantalized by the magical $100 million mark. Yes, it’s just a number, but they get so close, and then something knocks them back a bit. This time it was COVID. Sales literally stopped for a couple of months, but things came roaring back, and they figured out how to make the shop floor safe. No one really worked tightly together anyway, it was mostly the machinery that made the parts. With some protocols and modest investments in PPE, they made it work.

In the front office, it was a different story. They had proudly built their facility in the 90s when business was booming, and an open office filled with cubes was all the rage. Now, with a pandemic, it was not really safe. He sent people home in March, and the last thing he thought was that they’d still be there a year later. To be fair, the small customer support, accounting, and sales teams could largely do their work anywhere. All they needed was a phone, a computer, and internet access. Even the three person R&D team only needed to be in the office every couple of days to check in with the shop.

As a result, the big open office attached to the front of the plant was essentially empty. It was just him and the VP of manufacturing in there many days. In a way that drove him nuts. They did everything over Zoom, and to his surprise the numbers all looked OK. Of course, they didn’t hit the magic number in 2020, but they had rebounded, and they’d be fine. It seemed like people were making it work. Some people even seemed happier working from home. 

But he just couldn’t do it. And as long as no one was there, his office – his home away from home for over 40 years – seemed plenty safe to him. He came in every day, wearing his mask until he was safely in his office, working from his comfort zone. The corner office he’d been in for decades.

Still one thing gnawed at him. It was something that bothered him before COVID, and now it just seemed to be getting worse. To him, it felt like everyone was late. Not in the shop. On the floor, there were firm orders, numbers, dates, and deadlines. They needed to have 1500 of those out to that customer by tomorrow morning, and they would meet that. The company was almost never late on a customer deadline.

No, his issue was in the front office. And the problem seemed everywhere. Late to meetings, late for phone calls, just a little late on deadlines. It seemed like everything was always late. This morning he’d sat on an empty Zoom screen for a full five minutes – alone. It drove his detailed-oriented engineering mind crazy.

So, he turned to his new HR director. She’d only been there for a few months, but she seemed to be smart and competent. He called her into his office. Yes, actually made her drive in from home, and meet him in his office. She was, mercifully, five minutes early.

He just dove right in. This lateness is killing us, he ranted. It’s disrespectful, it’s sloppy, and it just has to be hurting our work. It’s a miracle it hasn’t spread to the shop floor, but has it spread to our customers? Do salespeople treat our customers this way? This just infuriates me and it feels like a rot in the whole company’s culture.

He glared right at her and asked, “what are you going to do about this”? He wanted her to fix it. To find some slogan, to have some meeting, to do something, anything to fix what he called “this broken culture”.

She was speechless. She had seen it too, of course. People were late, and it did seem like it was a company-wide thing. Somehow no one was ever on time for their Zooms, and no one seemed to care. She had casually talked about it with the head of customer support. Everyone saw it. But as she sat there with the CEO, she was at a loss. She nodded and agreed with him, mumbled something, and promised to look into it.

He felt better, he’d gotten it off his chest. But she felt terrible, because after all, there’s really nothing she could do about it.


The HR director felt helpless because she knew that fixing things is not HR’s role. They can see things that are happening. They can be the eyes and ears, perhaps even cheerleaders, for the leadership. But they can’t really change anything.

A great HR person can offer advice and perspective. They can counsel a leader to action or patience. They can help refine messages or propose tools that will help with cultural problems. But they can’t fix the culture. They can’t tell people what to do, how to behave, or really even enforce the rules. It’s the managers, the leadership, that does all of that. 

We’ll talk more about HR’s role in upcoming episodes. But it’s important to remember that, at best, HR is just the mass air flow sensors of the organizational engine.

The HR director left the CEO’s office with a problem. She said to herself, there are only two ways to change a culture: by changing the people, or by the people changing.

Changing out the people is a quick way to move a culture, she thought. Like many quick fixes, it’s a brute force way to do it. But in many cases, it’s the only way. Especially if you need to break a cycle.

As we discussed in the last episode, human behavior can be harmonic. And the harmonics can be good or bad. Things can accelerate to amazing highs, or to depressing lows. To shake up a bad culture often requires a hard break in the cycle. The easiest way to do that is by removing the worst offenders. This takes out the catalyst and also sends a strong signal to those that remain that things are going to change. The message is clear: they can either change or leave as well.

Changing out people is a job that only the leaders can do. It’s not up to HR, or anyone else to make that call. The leaders of the team have to decide if the disruption caused by the behavior is worse than that caused by the person leaving. And, although they might have an opinion, that’s not a decision for HR or anyone else to make.

We discussed some of the ways to make that decision back in season one. I encourage you to review the episodes on firing where I offer you some insights on how to make the decision, and how to actually fire people. 

The HR director thought hard about the case here. The culture of disrespecting everyone’s time was a clear problem, but probably not worth firing anyone over. The head of sales was the worst of the offenders, always late. Annoyingly so. And everyone else seemed to think, heck if they’re always late, why should I bother to be on time. Yes, an example could be made by firing them. Yet, sales were good, and their work was otherwise fine. Firing seemed like an overreaction to the problem.

So, she thought, when removing the people is either too drastic or not feasible, it’s time to not change the people but for the people to change.

She was not naive. Getting people to change is hard. Especially in older organizations. That is organizations that are older with long established cultures, or in ones filled with older people who are often set in their ways. But it can be done. A lot, she realized, depends on the source of the change.

If the source of the change is external, such as public pressure or market forces, resistance is natural. In fact, these pressures often result in a culture that digs in. This is especially true with hard core cultures, those that are brash, aggressive, or high testosterone. External pressure to change these cultures usually results in it getting worse, not better. In those cases, removing people, along with the accompanying shock, is often the only way to effect change.

She knew though, that if the source of the change is internal, culture change through transformation can succeed. If the change is driven by impassioned employees or other internal retrospection, the process is delicate, but it can be done. It relies on building momentum.

If enough people can get together, build communal strength, and reinforce the culture change through the organization, a culture can change. Here HR can play a small role. They can help employees share their concerns, make sure those who speak up are taken seriously, and ensure leadership is hearing the concerns. 

However, if the source of the issue is the leadership, if the problem starts at the top, this often backfires. The leader will lash out and decry the “rebellion in the ranks”. They will punish, even fire, those who are trying to change the culture. This often results in a battle of wills between those who want change, and leadership who steadfastly refuses to entertain it. Sadly, cultures like this may be irretrievably broken.

Fortunately, that was not the case here. The CEO was always prompt, even early for everything. His engineering mind demanded it. In that way, she was lucky. The leader was not part of the problem, and he also fully recognized the issue. 

And she knew the most potent way to effect cultural change is from the top. All she needed to do was help him do make it happen. In a strange way, she was excited by the opportunity. It was a chance for her to be more than just the eyes and ears, more than just the sensor. She could actually help make the engine run better.

Next time we’ll discuss how she did it, and how you as a leader can change a culture. How you can introduce cultural change, and the things you can do as a leader to spread it. But that’s next time. In the meantime, protect your sensors. Because they are a vital part to keep your organization’s engine running.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site

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That’s it for this episode. The next episode’s conversation is with Bob Muglia. Bob is a long-time tech industry leader who was the CEO of Snowflake, until he wasn’t. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.