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Engineers are often the biggest stumbling block to success when it comes to introducing change into any organization, says Stephen Armstrong. As a licensed professional engineer, a change consultant and president of AMGI Management Inc. of Toronto, he says he has seen highly educated, vastly experienced engineers dig in their heels. They resist new processes, new programs and new structures as if change represented an end to life itself.

"About 80 per cent of the problems I face in a change management project come from engineers," he says. "They can pose a real challenge when an organization is committed to finding new and better ways to do things."

Change management is Mr. Armstrong's stock-in-trade. Educated as a mechanical engineer in his native Belfast, he made a career leap into management consulting in 1988. He worked first for what was then KPMG Peat Marwick, rising to become principal in charge of manufacturing systems. He went on his own establishing a one-man consulting shop in 1993. His client list includes Samco Machinery Ltd., Toronto Plastics Ltd., Ault Foods Ltd., Bombardier Aerospace Ltd. and Bell Globemedia.

His highest-profile project was the design and engineering approach he created for de Havilland Aircraft, now known as the Bombardier Engineering System (BES). That new way of approaching aircraft design is used company-wide today and halves the time it once took to design and engineer new products.

Mr. Armstrong attributes the reluctance of engineers to embrace change to their training. They are educated in silos, he says, with little understanding of how their specialty area of the profession interrelates with other engineering disciplines or other business functions. As well, engineers base their approach to problem solving on historical data and precedents. Abandoning the tried and true is anathema to them.

"I used to be the same way," he says. "It took me a full five years to make the leap from defending the status quo to embracing change. Frankly, it is one of those things I hate about the profession."

The Bombardier Engineering System illustrates how thinking outside the box can vastly improve company-wide processes and how change can be managed successfully. It is also the basis for a book by Mr. Armstrong, recently published by Cambridge University Press. Engineering and Product Development Management: The Holistic Approach details how de Havilland Aircraft developed the process, went through three changes of ownership and then saw BES accepted right across the operations of its new owner, Bombardier.

"In past, the company had used a traditional approach to designing and engineering new products. It was a sequential, serial approach. One step followed the other. The result was it took maybe three years just for the design and engineering phase," Mr. Armstrong explains. "What I did was persuade them to adopt a concurrent approach, to do multiple tasks at the same time. The result was that instead of three years, the process now took 18 months or less."

The stumbling block to any change, however, is not coming up with the process but re-educating and winning the support of company staff. That usually means breaking down silos and replacing them with cross-discipline, cross-functional teams.

"To drive any new process forward, you need to make almost everyone in the company aware of how their job impacts other jobs and the effect their job has on company success," he explains. "It is a holistic approach. Employees can't continue to operate in isolation; they have to become part of a well-informed team, with an understanding of all the elements of the corporation their jobs affect."

It can be an emotional and taxing experience, he adds. At the beginning about 80 per cent of the people involved will not only resist change but will actively dislike consultants like Mr. Armstrong, whom they see as the cause of disruption to their lives. "About 10 per cent will almost want to kill me," he says.

By the end of the project, however, 90 per cent will see the consultant as a hero. "The trouble is, just when you are everyone's hero, you have to move along to the next project," Mr. Armstrong adds.

Too many companies depend on individual heroes and not on effective operating teams to drive their businesses, he says. Part of his job as a change management coach is to convert organizations away from a dependence on a handful of key people and toward the creation of effective, cross-functional teams. The way he usually begins that process is by identifying what he calls "influencers" and "blockers." Influencers need not be management; they are men and women other employees look to for support and guidance.

The key to influencing the influencers is by convincing them that accepting and supporting the new process is in their own best interest. "It could be that the change will mean more money for them, more authority, better working environment, more prestige; whatever works for them," he says.

Then he uses the influencers to convert the blockers. Creating a situation where individual employees become team builders and not have teams forced upon them is crucial to success, he explains.

Nor is Mr. Armstrong a fan of MBAs. His own early working career was spent as an apprentice on the machine shop floors of Short Brothers PLC and Harland and Wolff Ltd. in Belfast. Those years taught him the value of the practical over the theoretical and gave him a lasting, employee's-eye view of organizations, he says. What he does espouse is what he calls just-in-time education. Organizations have to accept the responsibility and burden of continually upgrading the skills of employees and retrain them to meet the challenges of process and organizational change, especially cross-disciplinary and cross-functional change.

"Organizations have to become their own universities," he says. "They can't rely on academic institutions to deliver in graduates all the business-related skills they need. Work term projects at university are not enough."