Imagine the scenario. Your company launches a new change initiative “that will transform the company”. The exhortation is to get involved and make the change work. A central task force team has been formed to manage the change and they will be engaging with everyone very soon.
What is your first reaction?
Oh boy, here we go again, yet another change initiative, just like all the others that didn’t work either. I will just ignore it.
Sounds like you are suffering from change fatigue!
Oh boy, time to polish the CV as I don’t want to change, again. Get out while I can.
Sounds like shades of change fatigue, plus elements of disillusionment and personal resistance.
Oh boy, fantastic, finally everyone around me is going to be told to change to my way of thinking and I won’t have to do a thing.
I am enthusiastic that everyone else will change but I won’t have to. To quote Peter Senge:
“People don’t resist change, they resist being changed”
Or any combination of these, plus likely a few others!
The trouble, I feel, is that the language we use when talking about change and the models and frameworks we employ to implement it are possibly not in line with both the pace at which change happens and the new ways of thinking, like Lean and Agile.
Let’s start with the word itself – change.
The word is both a verb and a noun. The dictionary definition of each is:
verb: “make or become different”
noun: “an act through which something becomes different”
Interestingly the synonyms include “transform”, another term we use a lot to describe the really big changes we are going to make. Incidentally another synonym is “mutation”!
What we should notice is that there is no explicit indication of whether the change is intended to have a good, bad or neutral outcome, it is just going to be different, although there is probably an assumed implication that if we change “X” then somehow things will be better. And if we do a whole lot of “change” then we will have “transformed” the organisation into something spectacular. It is certainly true that a lot of change will almost certainly transform an organisation, but into what?
So are there any candidates for a better term we could use? Well, as I have already mentioned Lean, what about “improve” and “improvement”, which is the term used in one of its two pillars, “Continuous Improvement” (I will come to Continuous shortly). By using the word “improve”, it clearly indicates something is going to be done or changed with the stated intention of making things better. There is no confusion as to the intention (that does not mean the change will always work, but the intention is crystal clear).
This brings me on to the use of the word “continuous”, which addresses the second aspect of doing “change”, the models and frameworks that are usually deployed to carry it out.
The traditional thought is that to introduce a change or transformation, there needs to be some form of management to make sure it works. Hence change management is the order of the day, and there are many models and frameworks around. For example, the Kotter 8 step model is one that is well known. This lays out the steps that an organisation ought to take in order to ensure that the change initiative is successful and is well managed. For reference the eight steps are:
1. Create Urgency
2. Form a Powerful Coalition
3. Create a Vision for Change
4. Communicate the Vision
5. Remove Obstacles
6. Create Short-term Wins
7. Build on the Change
8. Anchor the Changes in Corporate Culture
The problem I see with these approaches is that they make assumptions, such as that the change can be defined and driven from the centre, that there is an end-point to doing change, that we can define up front where we want to be at the end, define how we get from where we are now to where we want to be, then close the initiative down when we get there. However, is it really possible in these fast-moving times to define up-front a vision of where an organisations needs to be on a long timescale measured in years? How are we expected to see into the future and predict what is going to happen? It is a good bet that the vision we had this year is going to have to change next year, as outside influences will make the original vision invalid. It is almost impossible to define a vision that will last, then work towards it. Is it not better to keep our eyes on what is happening around us now, then adapting and improving based on the conditions that we know about, rather than guessing? And to keep doing this on a continuous basis? That is what Continuous Improvement is all about. Toyota, where Lean originated, is still in this mode and is still working and improving on its systems and processes after decades. There is no defined end-point.
We know we need to improve, but we need to do it on a continuous basis, and these improvements have to be in the knowledge of what is happening now, not what we thought might be happening a year ago. Hence the model needs to be one of continuous improvement, which does not have an end point; it is just the way the organisation works. This is what Lean refers to as the “kaizen” mind-set.
So if we purport to be a Lean organisation then the only way to do it is to instil the practice of Continuous Improvement. Not have change initiatives run like projects with a start and an end. It allows the whole organisation to continuously inspect its environment and how the organisation is working within it, and then make continuous small adaptions of its processes to improve how it works within the current environment. And the whole organisation does this, it is not just limited to change initiatives or central groups, everyone is empowered and motivated to improve how they work for the good of the organisation, to allow it to meet its goals and aspirations.
By the way, “Continuous” means continuous! That is, every day everyone is looking at their current situation and making the necessary adaptations to ensure they are always improving. Continuous does not mean having frequent “change initiatives” that address certain areas of the organisation. This is an often misunderstood principle of Lean. Agile teams have this practice built into their processes in the form of regular retrospectives at which they inspect and adapt their ways of working, usually at the end of iterations or Sprints. However, even that maybe not as continuous as needed, as a Sprint may be up to a month long. There is nothing that stops teams like this inspecting and adapting on a daily basis, via their stand-ups, and implementing small improvements where necessary.
So there we have it. By adopting the Lean principle of Continuous Improvement, we have a different way of talking about change that helps to remove some of the traditional resistance or baggage attached to the word, plus a model to enable us to carry out the necessary improvements, but focused on always being current and what the organisation needs at this point in time, in order to meets its goals and aspirations. It engages and empowers, the whole workforce to participate in the improvements making for a Lean organisation.