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View From The Top

18 July 2011

It can be said that when it comes to organisational change, no one thinks harder than the people at the top. Dr John Lim, Chief Executive of the Health Sciences Authority, tells Challenge what went through his mind as he and his team steered the organisation’s regulatory arm through a major overhaul. - by Wong Sher Maine

Dr John Lim, a trained medical doctor with a health management degree from Harvard University, knew soon after he took over the reins at the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) in 2006 that there was room for improvement.

Yes, the Health Products Regulation Group (HPRG) of HSA – which ensures that health products in Singapore meet internationally benchmarked standards – was competently run. But as the saying goes, things can always be better.

“Expectations of industry stakeholders, namely the healthcare companies, were increasingly demanding. We needed to boost our service levels,” said Dr Lim, on the need for manpower and process changes in the HPRG’s department of 215 staff.

Roping In Leaders

A five-person team comprising top management, including the CEO, was assembled to form the Change Board. “Conceptually, it’s a steering committee. You always need a team of senior people seen to be actively engaged as they make decisions and facilitate decision-making, accountability and communications across all levels of organisational hierarchy,” said Dr Lim.

Dr Lim and members of the Change Board were physically present for all key meetings. “It had to be a team effort, to show strong commitment and that we were on the same page,” he recounted.

And although external change consultants were hired, Dr Lim and the Change Board decided early on to front all the verbal communications to the staff involved.

"Staff had to see that senior management was fully supportive and vocal about the change and that the job was not simply left to consultants," said Dr Lim.

Roping In Staff

Staff members who were more closely involved in the change exercise were selected as “implementation champions” and “process owners”, so they could form a communication link between the Change Board and the rest of the staff experiencing the organisational changes.

Saying It Right

Communication was a crucial piece in assembling the change puzzle, as the leaders had to ensure that change was widely accepted and wholeheartedly adopted – an area that Dr Lim and his team paid careful attention to.

“We over-planned and spent a lot of time thinking through how people might react,” said Dr Lim. Some of their communication strategies included:

Providing a third-party perspective. Professor Robert Peterson, a leading practitioner in Canada’s healthcare regulatory landscape and who had implemented major change in Health Canada’s therapeutic products division, gave a talk on developments in the field of healthcare regulation. Said Dr Lim: “It is important for an external and credible expert to provide a third-party perspective for employees to gain an appreciation of the changing operating environment, and the pressing need for change.”

Appealing to logic. As most HPRG staff are scientifically trained, hard facts and figures supporting the change were produced. “A communication effort to them cannot be just about managing their emotions, important as that is. They also need substantial examples to back up the case for change,” said Dr Lim.

The Big Picture. Whenever he spoke to staff about the need for change, Dr Lim provided an over-arching vision instead of focusing on individual concerns. He said: “If you move the staff to see more or beyond, then it helps manage their fear and uncertainty.”

Empathetic Leadership

Manpower changes were perhaps the most challenging aspect of the HPRG change process.

“The main difficulty in this transition was handling the sensitivities of the reorganisation,” said Dr Lim.

As part of addressing the need for succession planning, the Change Board grappled with having to laterally move senior divisional heads from executive to advisory roles. This was a delicate task. However, it was made possible because of the trust Dr Lim had established with senior divisional heads, having worked with them for eight years. He also hosted a private lunch for them to demonstrate appreciation for their contributions to the organisation over the years and to emphasise they were still part of the team. It turned out to be an act of gratitude and respect that touched them.

Said Dr Lim: “In times of process-driven change, the need to focus on managing the people side of change is crucial. Efforts to preserve human dignity and mutual respect, as well as proactively addressing concerns and fears, can go a long way in facilitating people through change.”

The result? A year on, the new leaders have settled into their new responsibilities. The staff have responded positively to the changes and there is greater collaboration throughout the Health Products Regulation Group.

Cheat Sheet for Leaders

How to help your organisation deal with change:
- Leaders have to show commitment. Be present to front all verbal communications.
- Invest time and effort into hammering out details of the change process.
- Customise what is said to different groups of staff.
- Be empathetic and proactive in managing the people side of change.


This is the last of a three-part series on Managing Change. It was developed together with the Civil Service College’s Centre for Organisation Development.

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