Cognitive Styles and Implications of Change in a Major Chemical Plant

Cognitive Styles and Implications of Change in a Major Chemical Plant

William Diana, Carol Devoy & Celia Milano

This paper discusses the use of Adaption-Innovation Theory as it pertains to changes facing natural work teams, especially involved with the daily operations of units. Change is occurring at such an accelerated rate that the following is often heard on the production floor “we haven’t even got used to the previous change – and here comes another one”. Change does indeed affect teams in many ways. And often we are called upon to help improve team effectiveness, when both the type of work individuals have to perform, as well as the number of individuals that are available to perform the work, are in constant flux. We have found that the use of cognitive style theory may help facilitate the change processes.


Team building can be defined as helping a group of individuals overcome human and organizational resistance in achieving teamwork. It is providing a means whereby group members can come together to learn about and acquire specific skills and practice these skills to help accomplish critical objectives. Sometimes an outside consultant can help jump start this process. However, we believed that the best team building occurs when the team members themselves rethink and reshape their team’s potential, their basic tasks, how they go about performing their work processes, and the policies that they will work under. This internal self-development process is fuelled by providing team members’ knowledge of pertinent team process concepts.

It isn’t often that consultants get a chance to help good teams get even better. And, rarely do they get a chance to work with effective shift production teams. That situation, when it occurs, presents an unusual opportunity to find out why good teams function well, what additional techniques might be employed to achieve further improvements in bottom line team related results, and how to help teams remain effective, while the organization undergoes change of various sorts. Below is a description of our work with numerous teams in a large petrochemical operation.

The Current System and its Organizational Structure

The petrochemical division has the organizational structure shown in Figure 1. This unique organizational structure was developed through intensive, formal, facilitated redesign of the business unit, beginning some years back. The fundamental working unit of the organization is called the Operating Team (Ops Team). The Ops Team was designed to contain all necessary disciplines/stakeholders required to make day-to-day operations and maintenance decisions. Ops Team membership typically includes a Maintenance First Line Supervisor, a Process First Line Supervisor, a Chemical Engineer, a Mechanical Engineer, an Inspector and a Machinery Specialist. A Second Line Supervisor is assigned to each Ops Team to act as a coach and liaison, and to set boundaries and provide resources. Within the established constraints, however, the Ops Team operates in a self-directed mode. Members of the Ops Team are also assigned as liaisons to the shift teams.

In addition to the Ops Teams, some longer-term technical support is available. The Technical Core assists the Ops Teams in project development and larger technical studies. The remaining support group, Coordination, directs the scheduling and information flow between the various Ops Teams. Coordination also manages product movements. The overall design of the organization maximizes personnel participation in creative short-cycle-time problem solving that is aimed at keeping the plant running well. The support teams handle or provide resources for longer-term improvements and external communication links. This organizational design relies heavily on effective teamwork and interaction, thus team training is highly desired throughout the organization.

Cognitive style diagram

Significant Manufacturing Division Accomplishments

Over the past few years, the site has achieved many notable successes, even while streamlining the organization. For example, all of the operating units achieved records in production in the past year, while achieving more than 2% reduction in maintenance costs averaged over a six-year period. Recordable safety related incidents are at an all time low level, thus putting this site as among the leaders in the world as well as in the company. Working closely together with the technology organizations, the business units have also accomplished major capital expansion at an enviable return on capital employed.

Further, a successful team based Quality Process is solidly entrenched. As a result of this and other team-based activities, engineers, operators and technicians work closely, and all actively participate in many process improvements. Often members of the Operating Department, including shift personnel, participate in the development of pertinent capital projects.

Through this period, skills training courses have been given to all of the Division’s personnel. Corporate goals are well known, and goal alignment is apparent from management right to the production floor. It is also obvious that the Division is staffed by many competent, motivated individuals. Basic team work concepts are known, and are practiced at the site. And, as in all “living processes”, there is always room for additional improvement.

Enlightened Management Welcomes Improvements in Team Performance

Although the teams throughout the Division are functioning well the Operations Department managers consider training in team skills to be as important as technical skills training. All of the Department Heads share a common goal to help their teams reach even higher levels of performance, through learning and practicing state of the art team concepts. Also, all felt that helping the team to cope better with both planned and unplanned change was a highly desired outcome of any future intervention. A successful strategy for most interventions, helped set by informal interviews, includes the identification of needs, and then designing the intervention to meet those needs. Thus, as a first step, informal interviews were conducted, with a sample of personnel at the site, to obtain base case information. The interviewed sample included personnel in the following job functions: Second Line Supervisors, Department Managers, Plant Shift Operators, Engineers and Maintenance Personnel.

The results of the informal surveys were informative and are summarized as follows:

  • Throughout all levels of the organization, most people felt that good team work was occurring at the site. Further, people felt that their particular team was working very effectively, with many positive comments about associates, and these comments flowed equally from top down as well as bottom up
  • In general, management personnel felt that most operations personnel were perceived as relatively resistant to and sometimes “upset” over change. This was especially prevalent when people moves were made, and changes in the structure of the teams resulted
  • In general, wage personnel felt that “messing around” with the structure of their teams was extremely disruptive to team work. It fractured the team, and it took a long time to put the team “back together again”
  • There were also isolated comments that certain (unnamed) individuals from outside the immediate team, mostly in supervisory positions, needed to become more realistic and tone down their requests for either technical or people related changes. Further inquiry indicated that some of these requests were felt to be “extreme”
  • Some shift operators felt that more structure was needed
  • Some operators took an alternate position and claimed that there are so many rigid rules and procedures that must be followed; there is no room to be creative.
    Others claimed that it was very stressful to cope with all the rapid changes that were occurring. “Just when we get used to a previous change a new one comes along”

Adaptive/Innovative Based Intervention Recommended

We were strongly attracted to Kirton’s theory and inventory especially because a most important element of his Adaptive/Innovative theory is that style is independent of level of creativity. So, all things being equal, a person using an adaptive style to solve a problem is just as creative as a person who is using an innovative style. It is the way creativity is applied that is different. What really is intriguing is that style is often confused with level of creativity, and many people feel that the individuals using the innovative style are more creative. Probably, as Kirton suggests, these individuals are more likely operating or suggesting ideas that are outside, or at the edge of the existing paradigm, and so seem more unexpected thus style might be easily confused with level of creativity. However, unexpected does not equal good! We felt, for example, that some of the most effective problem solvers at the site were the plant production operators and maintenance personnel. They were constantly solving all sorts of numerous problems – that needed quick practical solutions within the existing structure. Few people considered these resources as “creative”. Even when asked if they felt that they were creative most operators often answered “no – not especially”.

Why Use Kirton Theory?

Previously, we had used this theory to help teams solve problems more appropriately and efficiently. For the current application, the Kirton approach would also fit very well, and in addition it might provide some very basic information that could help the site better manage both diversity (of problems and problem solvers) and change. Also, use of Kirton technology might obtain some pertinent bottom line efficiencies. For example, the biggest efficiencies often came from the realization that difference in styles of team members might have been contributing to communication, trust, and other team barriers that often limited a team’s performance. Once the team members understood the differences that exist on their teams, especially across interfaces, they begin to tolerate better this newfound diversity and use it to their advantage. The really exceptional teams eventually did more than tolerate and utilize style diversity – they sought and welcomed it!

Table 2
Mean Kirton Scores for Individual Teams Residing in Davison

Operations Department Management Team I & A 101
Operations Department Management Team B 95
Engineering Team 94
Industrial Hygiene Team 95
Ops Team (PCIT) 90
Customer Service & Coordination Team 97
Ops Team (TOPP) 84
Ops Team – I Unit 94
Shift A – I Unit 81
Shift B – I Unit 92
Shift C – I Unit 91
Shift D – I Unit 87
Ops Team – A Unit 96
Shift A – A Unit 89
Shift B – A Unit 86
Shift C – A Unit 91
Shift D – A Unit 97
Straight Day Mechanical/Maintenance Team 81

Measurements Reveal the Diversity of Style In and Between Teams

KAI was given to all of the teams in the Division, as well as to some of the support teams. All of the teams would attend a workshop aimed at describing the styles that existed n their team, the advantages and disadvantages of the various styles, and ways to better use this diversity in style. Also, a comparison was prepared to enlighten the workshop attendees of the depth of styles of the other teams on site. A total of 18 Divisional teams, including Technology and Industrial Hygiene (the latter two do not directly report to the Site management) were involved in the study. A discussion of the results for all of the teams follows.

1. Overall Measurements Reveal that an Adaptive Style Predominates at the Site

Eighteen teams were measured. The mean scores for each of the teams are shown in Table 2. The mean KAI score for all of the personnel in the Division was 91. This mean score indicates that the preferred style of the workers in the site is moderately on the adaptive side of the population norm. This is expected since the plant environment is normally highly structured and rule orientated. Two other teams were assessed. The technology team, as expected, scored to the Innovative side of the scale at 105; and the industrial hygiene team scored at 95, right at the population norm.

2. Yet, a Wide Diversity in Style Exists on Every Site Team Measured

It was apparent that each team had in its composition, classically defined “diversity”, i.e. race, gender and age. And, even though some teams were strongly innovative, there was also, without exception, a wide range in cognitive styles presiding in each team. Differences of 30 or more KAI units between individuals on each team were common. Yet the team members had not let “differences” affect their performance. They had come to grips with differences including style within their team!

In the operations Shift Team the gap between the extreme most adaptive and innovative individuals is 60 units, the largest difference measured! Yet, there was little evidence, from observing their daily work activities, and during the subsequent workshop session, of any communication or problem solving barriers on this team. And all of the teams were operating very well in the existing structure.

During some of the shift team sessions there were expressions of concern regarding one section supervisor’s ideas and solutions to problems. These inputs were often considered extreme. Her score, unknown to the teams, was very innovative. Interestingly, some members attributed the “difference” to gender issues. Yet there were women on many teams, and these women (whether adaptive or innovative) were completely accepted in the operations environment. The subject was thoroughly discussed, and it was agreed that conflict might indeed be related to a difference in style; and the “superior” position in rank of the supervisor might also be a communications barrier. It was further discussed and agreed that the teams might be losing an opportunity for improvement by not utilizing the advantages offered by the Innovative style. It would be very advantageous to be able to use the supervisor’s very innovative style for those problems that might need solutions out or near the edge of the paradigm. Undoubtedly, this supervisor had demonstrated the capacity to think outside of normal, sometimes constraining boundaries; and, with not much effort, the team could make better use of cognitive style diversity through collaborating, and thus creating new, unexpected, potentially ground breaking solutions.

Cognitive Styles Based Workshop Given to Each Team

As previously mentioned, a workshop was given to each team. The Kirton Theory was presented, and the impact that styles had on teamwork was discussed. To help make the workshops interesting, convincing and informative, two experiments were conducted. The first experiment involved solving a problem that was designed to be simple, but out of the paradigm. The second experiment involved predicting a fellow team mate’s style. Informative results were achieved.

a. The “Square” Experiment

Ten teams were randomly picked to participate in the experiment. Each individual on the team was asked to index solve a problem independently, shown in Figure 3. They were asked to move only two dots to produce a square at least twice as large as the original square. Purposely, the word square was emphasized to drive home the paradigm connection. The more adaptive were expected to work in the paradigm, think and move dots to make an existing square bigger by extending the boundaries. On the other hand, the more innovative, less constrained by boundaries or rules, would be more apt to work outside of the perceived structure. In eight of ten experiments those individuals with an innovative style were the first to present the solution (Fig 3) to the problem (Fig 2)
Cognitive style diagram 2

A key learning experience, as expressed by many team members, was “higher innovators are nice to have around when the best solution to the problem the team faces is out of the paradigm”. Also, that “Adaptors can also use their creativity to work outside the paradigm, when it becomes necessary to do so, but that is not generally where they will start”. It is indeed the effective use of style diversity that hallmark exceptional teams. The teams recognized that style diversity could be very beneficial to the team, once recognized, understood and properly utilized.

b. Predict a Team Mate’s Style

In all of the workshops, before team members were aware of the measure of each other’s styles, each participant was asked to choose someone whom they have worked closely with for at least a few months. They were then asked to fill out a KAI on the other individual. In actuality they were measuring the other person’s perceived cognitive style. There, of course, could be some very unusual results. For example, an individual with a strong adaptive style might perceive a mild innovator to be even more innovative, and the score might be inflated. Just the opposite might be obtained with an innovator determining the style of the adaptor. Also, there might be a situation where someone has modified his/her behaviour and changed their preferred style to that perceived as more acceptable or appropriate to the work place. Would differences show up in the data? The data for one shift team is shown in Table 3.

Table 3
Predicting a Team Mate’s Style

Individual Predicted Self Score

Z 75 83
Y 105 98
X 74 79
W 65 70
V 100 103
U 85 81
T 81 90

For this particular team, two members, one strongly adaptive, the other on the innovative side of the spectrum, were not able to participate due to a plant problem that required their immediate expertise. However, the data clearly showed that each team member was employing his/her preferred style, and associates could determine cognitive styles very accurately. Further, on this team it was not necessary to “change preferred style” towards that of the Group mean. The team members felt that it was a significant plus not having to “cope”. Similar results were achieved with other shift teams. This might be one explanation why the shift teams were internally very effective. Without knowing Kirton’s theory they had achieved a level of mutual acceptance that reduced the energy required to “fit in”!

In previous work we have also found that using KAI to predict the style of a teammate has been useful in team building interventions where there are “problems” between team members and supervisors. The actual and perceived gaps between individuals can be measured, and related to the problem as perceived by the individuals involved.

Feedback from the Workshop Participants

Some very positive responses were received from the participants. This feedback indicated that shift as well as management personnel understand, accept and should have no difficulty applying cognitive style concepts in their work place. Examples of the feedback included the following:

Adaption-Innovation theory shows how important all people are to the team
Shows the diversity in our work force
A wonderful tool for helping people work together
Understanding co-workers and workers brings a better work atmosphere and cooperative efforts
Excellent evaluation of the team and what we need to work on.

Kirton’s research showed that most occupations have a mean preferred style away from that of the general population. The difference reflects the nature of most of the problems they face. The team scores relate closely with their functions. Personnel who work on, or close to, the production line are more likely to have preferred styles that are adaptive to those that are farther removed from this job function. For example, the maintenance team is the most adaptive in style, followed closely by the shift teams. The service teams are close to the population norm. Individuals on these teams generally work on less predictable items. Technology (development) teams, not surprisingly, are the most innovative in style but not exclusively so. One of the shift teams, Shift D – A Team, appears to be out of sync in style. Their score is about 6-11 KAI units higher than most of the other shift teams in the A unit. When questioned, individuals from other A teams said, “yes, that shift is different!” and “they do indeed do things differently on that shift”. It is very apparent that a difference as low as 6 KAI units between teams is noticeable, as previously discovered and reported by Kirton.

A Perspective on Change and Organizational Stress

What might be perceived as change for the better, and championed by one group, could just as easily be considered detrimental by another group, especially if it radically affects their paradigm. Changes thought to be reasonable by the management teams could easily be thought of as “disruptive” by the teams on the line. Further, management teams could be unknowingly producing stress on the wage teams merely by considering or mentioning “intended” improvements or changes that involve personnel or deviations from thoroughly worked out procedures and personnel assignments.

Intermediate placed work groups, such as the Self Directed Ops Teams, are positioned between technology and operations personnel in cognitive style. Table 4 shows the KAI scores of the Self Directed Ops Teams.

Table 4
Mean KAI Scores of the Ops Teams

Team Mean KAI Score

A Ops 96
I Ops 94
PCIT Ops 90
TOPP Ops 84

As a result, the structure already in place at the site might be deliberately used to help facilitate the change process. One of the Ops Teams might be an excellent candidate acting as a Bridger, to test out first or evaluate new concepts and ideas before they are finalized and rolled out to the wage personnel. The impact could be readily assessed, modified, before implementing changes throughout the organization. Another possibility might be to test out appropriate changes with a shift team that also bridges the gap between management and the shift personnel. For example Shift D – A Team might be a likely candidate.


A wide range of cognitive styles is present in the Division’s work force. Knowledge of this diversity was used to foster trust and interdependence within teams, across team interfaces, and to help explain differences between teams subject to a changing environment. KAI also revealed significant differences in cognitive style between change makers and wage personnel in this division. Teams that are in the middle of the range, such as the Self Directed Ops Teams, could provide an organizational, as well as a cognitive, style bridge between management and wage personnel. Thus, we strongly recommend that this site exploits the bridging capabilities that potentially exist in the Ops Teams, to help introduce new ideas in organizational structure and systems. We would predict an improved potential for acceptance as well as a decrease in change related stress as an outcome.