When Change Goes Wrong

Leadership-MattersIn 1987, I was selected to head up a project to implement the real time software system upgrade at the Marine Aviation Supply Department where I was serving. Having discussed this signification enhancement for years at planning meetings and having been updated on the certification process, I was very excited to see that we had been selected to be the first supply department to be implemented after the certification of the software. Since the certification was conducted at the supply department on the other side of the runway on our base, we would have the advantage of their expertise to help with a smooth implementation.

In preparation for the new software, I was provided a team of key Marines whose positions were intrinsic to ensuring the success of the implementation. Thirty days prior to our implementation, I lead this team to meet the Navy team that would be conducting the on-site implementation, to receive training on how the new system would work, and to learn the steps associated with the implementation process. Upon our return from our training, we did several things that would guarantee the success of our implementation. The steps we took were:

  • Conducted a planning meeting. After we returned from our training, we gathered together and assignments were made to each team member to ensure we were ready for the implementation. Target dates were assigned to each assignment and I followed up with each team member to review the progress and completion of each task.
  • Information was gathered. Since we needed to establish log in and access information, we met with the different department heads to discuss who would need access to the system, what tasks would be performed, and what level of access needed to be granted. We would establish each log in and access prior to the implementation so that we could be ready for operations on the first day of the startup.
  • Review current software files. To ensure the data that was to be converted and moved into the new software system was accurate, I scheduled many of the management reports and discussed the review process with the various department heads. Each report had to be annotated with the corrective action that was taken and returned to me for review to ensure our files contained up-to-date data for the implementation.
  • Process review. I sat down with each department head and discussed their current processes and document flow and then discussed the enhancements coming with the new software system and how we could change the current processes to take advantage of the new system. Each step was carefully documented and was used to create a complete flowchart of how the new process would work and most importantly, how we could verify each step was being accomplished by our team and by the software.
  • Training. Once all the ground work was completed and the new flowcharts were created, I gathered together the department heads, their assistants, and key division leaders and provided them training on the new document flow for the entire supply department. This was important to me because I wanted the whole team to understand the entire process and to encourage them to embrace the changes that were coming so that resistance and fear were minimized. The department heads in turn trained their people thus reinforcing the processes and enhancing the excitement about standing up the new software system.

Our efforts to prepare our supply department paid great dividends. The entire department was excited and ready for the implementation. The implementation team was amazed that we were “two weeks ahead” of the implementation schedule and they were able to convert our files and stand up the new system immediately. The head of the implementation team even requested a copy of all the pre-implementation steps we took and our flow charts so he could use them in future implementations to ensure the same level of success.

This should be the end of the story. But unfortunately, the one thing I could not had anticipated happened – the actual software system that was implemented did not work! That’s right, after a year of “shaking the bugs out”, the system that was certified as ready for use throughout the Navy and Marine Corps did not work. Transactions processed but never posted to the financial reports causing imbalances on all accounts, the stocking level report (key to ensuring we had what we needed in wartime) was not calculating stocking levels properly and wartime reserves were not being protected, management reports did not contain all the outstanding requisition so reconciliations were more time consuming to conduct, and almost none of the management reports that were vital to supporting our aircraft were working. The excitement that had been created to embrace this upgrade quickly faded and complacency was setting in.

And when I sent out strongly worded messages that the system was broken and future implementations should be put off until the major system errors could be corrected, I was met with the following reactions. The head civilian programmer who was sent in to look at the problems walked in the door asking were the a**hole was that was causing all the problems – I was standing next to him so I introduced myself to his embarrassment. A Navy commander who was responsible for all implementations stated that the software was working. It was our document flow was the problem. He, too, was embarrassed when I had the head of our implementation team tell him that he had requested a copy of our document flow for future implementation because of the accuracy of our documentation. A Marine Major accused me of stripping vital information from the “tapes” and threatened to send me to jail. He had to swallow his words when I reminded him that in a real time system there were no tapes. They even sent a Lieutenant Colonel from Headquarters, Marine Corps to challenge me and berate me publically. Luckily, I had obtained copies of the all the reports from the other supply department that certified the software and was able to show that they had the exact same problems but had no one capable of properly reviewing the reports so they really were not aware of the problems. Only after I pointed out that these problems existed for them did they now realize that the increase in the number of aircraft not flying due to needing parts was directly attributed to the errors in the management software because they were not stocking at the proper levels.

Finally, everyone realized that the software really was not working properly and needed a major overhaul. I was asked to work with the civilian programmers to show them the major problems and our supply department would test each fix to ensure it was working properly.

Simple – I owed it to my team. They had worked so hard to ensure we had a successful implementation and had really embraced the changes with a positive attitude. If I was going to get them on board to now help me identify all the problems so that we could work with the programmers to get them fixed, I had to show them that their efforts were not in vain and that I was willing to fight for them.

And what did I take away from this experience? I learned that the steps you take to prepare for an upcoming major change will make the difference in the successful implementation. Learn everything you can about the change, have a team in place to prepare for the change, gather the necessary information and ensure you review all data that will be affected by the change, review current processes and get stakeholder buy in to the changes that will have to be put into place to operate under the new system, and finally, train the entire organization on the upcoming changes so that the all levels of the team understand what is about to happen and how to ensure the organization is successful at bringing the change to a reality. Do these things and even when everything goes wrong, your team will be prepared to make the necessary adjustments to turn a bad situation into a success.

If you are going to be an exceptional leader, you must be ready to steer your team through the process of change.


Len Bernat
Len Bernat
LEN is a leader groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the United States Marine Corps. Their guidance helped Len realize his full potential as he moved from an enlisted Marine to becoming an Officer of Marines. Len became known for being the leader who could turn any lackluster organization into a strong, functional unit. Upon his retirement, Len worked in several positions before finally starting a second career in governmental procurement. His experience and leadership skills enabled him to be recognized as the 2011 Governmental Procurement Officer of the Year for the Governmental Procurement Association of Georgia and opened doors for him to teach at many of the association’s conferences. Len was also called to the ministry and was ordained at Ashford Memorial Methodist Church in November of 1999. Today, Len is the Pastor of Maxeys Christian Church in Maxeys, Georgia. Len has been married to his wife, Hazel, for 36 years and they have three daughters, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Grab your copy of Len's new Book – Leadership Matters | Advice From A Career USMC Officer. Using his life experiences as examples, Len takes the eleven principles of leadership and the fourteen traits every leader should possess—which he learned during twenty years in the Marine Corps—and teaches the reader how he was molded and shaped by some of the best leaders the Corps had to offer.

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  1. I sure enjoyed this trip back into my own experiences as a project leader, tech writer, systems tester, and trainer. Prepare, document, perform, and monitor….,and through it all preserve the relationships. You handled it like the leader and champion you are.

    • Jane – I always enjoyed these challenges because when done right, the organization always improves because you have to look at all the processing being accomplished to ensure they work with the new system. But, I did not take the popular road and the powers to be changed my next duty assignment which was to head up the Marine assistant team at Norfolk where the program we had just implemented was being written and maintained. But, it was worth it because of the way I saw our supply department unite for a good cause. Thanks for your comment.

    • Jane – So true. They ended up sending me to NAS Meridian, MS to be the Executive Officer for the Marine Aviation Training Support Group. We had 5 different courses of instruction and all were teaching out of date material because “it was too hard to get courses changed.” Well, that was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. I not only worked with each course to get the courses updated but I worked with the civilian folks that managed the approval process for new material to cut the approval time from 3 years to 1 year. Additionally, I had all the new material reviewed by the appropriate agency and each course was awarded college credits so that our students who wanted to pursue their higher education while in the Corps had a leg up. The powers to be were trying to hide me away and it turned out to be the place I needed to be.

  2. We all know now that change requires some fundamental phases: an incubation / preparation phase, a planning phase and, finally, the execution phase.
    Although all these phases play a fundamental role, particular importance should be placed in the execution phase which includes the launch of the project, its control through the measurement of the results and the implementation of the corrective activities necessary to achieve the set objectives and it is easy , not to say inevitable, that things do not go exactly as they had imagined during the preparation and design phases. Here it is very important to be flexible, ready to turn in case the situation requires it. In this, a fundamental role is played by the management of the project but, from experience, I believe that training and communication have a primary role in the process of change, becoming critical success factors.

    • You have summed up the points in my article quite well – thank you for adding your insights to this important discussion on the successful implementation of a change in any organization.

  3. I remember those times — where there was the big bang software projects. There were always issues at the end. During the 80’s I remember a lot of the firms said that problems were caused from the lack of process, rather lack of repeatable process. Today, people are saying its people.

    It’s not people or process. It’s a lack of expertise in doing something big. Big things, may they be projects, strategies, or mounds and mounds of data involve a different skill set than those needed to complete small things.

    • Chris – Lack of expertise – great way to sum up the problem I encountered in this change. Not that the programmers weren’t good at what they were to do but no one had actually sat down and explained how the old system worked, how the reports were used, what the calculations should be, and how to make the new process work effectively. Thanks for sharing your insights as always.

  4. Great article Len. You showed true leadership, not just in the change part but in the way you conducted yourself in the face of poor leadership. Taking the high road is never easy when someone is calling you an ‘a**hole’. Great learnings, but you undersell your leadership at a critical time when you tell your story.

    • Thanks, Beth for your feedback and encouragement. As you know, we write so that we can help others grow. Since I know your work, your comments are greatly appreciated.