When new changes are being implemented, staff might feel like they are just being given a long list of new responsibilities. To encourage thinking about change in a positive light, focus on ways to empower your team.
Jason Todaro and Sarah Bolton

It is fair to say that over the last decade or so, the solid waste industry has been dealt its share of challenges and adversity. The declining waste tonnage and revenues experienced during the “Great Recession” of 2007 to 2009 forced many operations to “tighten their belts” and transition toward leaner operational processes while reducing staffing and equipment levels. More recently, challenges relating to the global recycling market are forcing the industry to reduce operating costs while scrambling to find markets for the growing stockpiles of recycled commodities. Regardless of the challenge at hand, the staff is integral in the success or failure of a process or an entire operation.

When times are good and revenues are flowing, operational efficiency and staff accountability can easily be put on the back burner. This “out of sight, out of mind” mentality sets a risky precedent that is difficult to overcome when an operational change or process improvement is necessary. It is common for staff to consider these “good times” as the benchmark when it comes to establishing their individual responsibilities or to determine the pace of the operation. Difficult times often turn this mentality on its head and require a complete re-thinking of “the norm.”

When an operational change or process improvement is in the air, staff may be afraid that their jobs are on the line, or that they are going to be given additional responsibilities and tasks. To some staff, change can be frightening and simply overwhelming. Often, staff will push back against change by digging in deeper and reverting to historic practice and familiar ways of approaching and performing tasks. The challenge as a manager is to communicate these changes to your staff, motivate them to buy-in to new ways of doing things, and give them the practical tools (training, standard operating procedures) to succeed. Here are some ways to make this process a bit smoother.

Be Honest and Transparent from the Beginning
It is human nature to fear the unknown. Unnecessary speculation and rumor can derail the process of steering operations staff toward efficiencies.  Having clear communication from the beginning of an operational change can help alleviate the rumors and fear. Brooks Stayer, Director of the Merced County Regional Waste Authority in Merced, CA, is an example of a leader who communicated with his team from the very beginning about upcoming changes to their operation.

When Brooks stepped into his position as Director, the organization was mired in debt.  To add insult to injury, the landfill and organics processing operations were over-staffed and heavily-equipped, and the revenue generated by the inbound tonnage was not capable of sustaining operations, let alone servicing the debt obligations of the authority.  Without intervention, the operation was on track—for a train wreck.

One of his first undertakings as the new director was to perform the difficult task of reducing staff levels. In that first year he reduced staff from 43 to 30 people. In addition to these necessary layoffs, he was also tasked with liquidating 16 pieces of underused heavy equipment, which generated nearly 1 million dollars of revenue at auction.

These were tough issues to communicate to his crew, but he kept communication open and clear so there was not any mystery about what was happening. “The inclusion helped them relate positively to the issues we faced,” says Stayer. He wanted his staff to know that they were crucial to solving the problems and making improvements. By including his staff in the process—from start to finish—he helped them see the “big picture” and to see the importance of succeeding as a team.

Evaluate Your Team and Make Hard Decisions
As a manager leading operational change, you may have to make some difficult decisions about your staff. You may find that some staff members are too resistant to change and refuse to adapt to a new working environment. You may have to make the hard decision that they do not fit in to your entity’s culture. And, ultimately, you must be willing to draw the hard line with your crew and let them know that changes are non-negotiable.

Our team has trained thousands of waste facility workers in the U.S., Canada, Australia and abroad, and while most staff are eager and willing to learn and apply new processes, we have found that some staff flat out refuse to embrace change. Some of these workers are even dangerous to their co-workers and customers. When it comes down to issues of safety and efficiency, not everyone is going to fit. You have to be willing and ready to make those hard decisions about your team.

Speak Your Team’s Language
After performing a Comprehensive Operational Review (CORE) at a solid waste facility, we are often asked to communicate and implement our findings and recommendations through onsite, hands-on training. Our team is often met with resistance as they begin justifying and implementing the operational improvements and recommendations identified during a CORE. But the “ace up our sleeve” has always been our company’s unique “boots on the ground” operational experience and knowledge. This real-world knowledge and understanding of the issues faced by staff goes a long way toward achieving buy-in to operational change.

Our team has spent a lot of time conducting training onsite. On one occasion, one of our onsite trainers was discussing some optimized heavy equipment operating techniques with landfill staff.  As he was describing the benefits and need for the more efficient process, one of the landfill staff, who was clearly perturbed by the mention of change, threw out a challenge: “If you are such an expert, then why don’t you show me your Caterpillar equipment key and jump on the bulldozer and show us how it’s done?”

As a heavy equipment operator with over 25 years of experience, our onsite trainer responded, “Sure, my key happens to be right here on my keychain and I’d be happy to operate the bulldozer to demonstrate.” As you can imagine, our team’s credibility with the staff went way up in that moment, because they knew we understood where they were coming from and could speak to their unique challenges and needs.

If you as the manager do not have the hands-on experience to communicate with your staff, get someone from your team to help “translate” the changes. Make sure that you are truly listening to your staff’s concerns and fears. Speak their language.

Focus on Empowerment, Not Responsibility
Often, when new changes are being implemented, staff might feel like they are just being given a long list of new responsibilities. To encourage thinking about change in a positive light, focus on ways to empower your team. Explain the background that is driving the change. Let them lead safety training sessions. Encourage them to suggest new ways to operate and involve them in the process of creating policies and standard operating procedures.

You must demonstrate how operational changes and improved efficiency are not just about money. They are about safety and promoting a culture of efficiency and clarity. And often, ultimately change is about maintaining the survival of the facility and continuing to provide jobs. Those are goals that everyone can get on board with.

Jason Todaro is a Solid Waste Operations Consultant at Blue Ridge Services and conducts on-site training for more than 25 weeks every year at facilities around the world. He has more than 20 years of varied experience in the heavy construction, utility, and solid waste industries. Sarah Bolton is the New Business Development Manager at Blue Ridge Services and oversees safety training development and distribution. She has helped develop 200+ safety training videos for waste facility staff and customers. For more information, e-mail [email protected], [email protected] or visit www.blueridgeservices.com.