"I thought we took care of this problem a month ago."

This statement, or a similar one, is often voiced by managers and executives who have championed or sponsored a team-based project and then find repeat failures and on-going corrective action at some later date. This realization is supported by published reports estimating 30% to 75 % of improvement activity will not meet expectations because of difficulty during the completion phase of problem solving.

Why does this happen? Why do projects often well-conceived fall short of their potential when put into practice?

System Improvement is About Change

System improvement is much more than problem solving. It is dual-staged, having two dependent parts that must be handled with the same enthusiasm to ensure success. The first segment is concerned with problem identification and solution finding, while the second segment deals with realizing a corrective action. Both segments operate under time constraints. Team members and sponsors, anxious to bring activities to a close, then rush through the last few steps and frequently end up shoving the results of problem solving down the throats of process operators who have been friends and coworkers.

By not taking the time to consider stakeholder needs and on-the-ground realities, a well-crafted solution can fail to gain traction while workers and supervisors come to grips with new and unfamiliar concepts. People who work in and manage operations then become grousing skeptics, procrastinators, and even active resistors. Due to frustration, improvements are half-heartedly accepted without creating a sense of ownership and an on-going need for change. The resulting indifference and push-back is received with surprise and chalked-up to the notion that people naturally resist change.

Better Planning, Better Acceptance

System improvements that are well planned and carefully managed have a much better chance of being accepted. People experiencing change are less likely to feel intimidated when they can understand and anticipate how alterations may impact their work. A step-by-step approach that is open and inclusive will be generally viewed as less daunting with improvements being more readily accepted.

Table 1 illustrates an approach to managing the process of change. Activities described are applied during the implementation stage of problem solving. The difficult job of shifting attitudes is much easier when using clearly defined steps to alter comfortable and workable traditions. Fixes are more likely to become integrated when deliberate measures are used to sustain improvements.

Table 1: Steps to Sustain Improvement and Anchor Change

Phase One:
Create Awareness

Phase Two:
Make a Plan

Phase Three:
Modify & Improve

Phase Four:
Standardize & Sustain

1. Explain the need for improvements

2. Communicate a unifying purpose

3. Identify formal and informal network and ensure their participation

4. Create a plan for action

5. Create the opportunity for small but meaningful gains

6. Empower people to take action

7. Manage resistance to system improvement

8. Complete the restructuring of routine activities

9. Monitor and sustain improvements

Apply the Steps

Phase One: Create Awareness

Before improvements can be made, people need a reason to make them. Certainty will usually outweigh uncertainty. So, start by crafting and framing a reason for modifying behavior. Define why improvements are needed. Consider using some of the following sources as a basis for making the need obvious:

  • Benchmark shortcomings against competitors or leaders in the organization’s market.
  • Document and display information about complaints from customers, clients, and stakeholders.
  • Document and display data related to rejects, scrap, rework, or the failure to maintain routine process control.
  • Question waste that is the result of complexity, bureaucracy, overproduction, excess inventory, transportation, waiting time, or unnecessary motion.
  • Expose excesses in spending and the inappropriate use of resources.

In addition, develop a central theme that people can rally around and create a sense of urgency so those impacted by change are ready to take a chance on something different. Make sure the voices of diverse workgroups are heard and that affected individuals have an active role in completing the transition. Don’t exclude views considered contrary or outside the norm. Trying to silence negative voices all in the name of positive thinking will only heighten the resistance to improvement.

Invite workgroups and stakeholders -- particularly those who have not been directly involved with developing the concept for change -- to meetings where progress is reviewed, questions answered and input accepted. Look for opportunities where stakeholders -- particularly informal leaders -- can be participants in the process of change and improvement. Let workgroups and stakeholder know how they are appreciated and how they can support transition activities.