Launching a continuous improvement initiative of some kind has become the norm for a large cross section of organizations throughout the world today. The aim is often to reinvent themselves as superior competitors, fine-tuned to customer needs and robust to adverse changes in business conditions. Depending on which sector of the world of business one looks at, these efforts have been given different names such as TQM (total quality management), Six Sigma, breakthrough management, Lean Transformation, reengineering, operational excellence, etc. Yet, at the heart of each of these programs remains the ultimate goal of achieving breakthrough1 by fundamentally changing the way business is executed.

In spite of each of the improvement methodologies offering a clear and consistent roadmap to implementation (e.g., DMAIC [Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control] for Six Sigma, DMADV [Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify] for Design for Six Sigma, 7 Wastes of Lean, etc.), different companies have experienced varying degrees of success in implementing such programs. In many cases, the benefits, in terms of employee morale and culture, customer satisfaction and the bottom line have turned elusive. The question is why is there this variation in levels of success among adopters of these programs?

The answer lies in the fact that most methodologies offer steps that are necessary to achieve success; they are neither sufficient nor exhaustive. This article explores some of the potential issues that need to be addressed during a change process that can make the difference between a successful and a not-so-successful deployment.

1. The House (of Quality) Needs Foundations

Underestimating the need for a support structure can be a big mistake in the process of deploying Lean or Six Sigma. It is important to first assess the gap between your current state and the future, desired state. This activity produces a list of things that need to change and, in addition, those that need to be positively reinforced. In the change process, this is not an either/or proposition. Both need to be done. As an example, if one has the fortune of having an army of talented Black Belts but a broken Champion support system, the program can fail in a heartbeat. Again, if both are present and yet, executive support is absent, then that can lead to disastrous results for a program as well.

The role of a consultant is potentially huge in this case. The superior knowledge base can be helpful in foreseeing roadblocks and addressing them at the very outset.

2. Speed Can Be an Illusion

One common trait of all change initiatives is that they go through a series of necessary steps that have their own lead times. Failing to recognize this fact often leads to skipping essential activities that only create an illusion of speed and never produces desired results.

Sticking to an overall game plan and building steady momentum over time brings change that is more coherent and permanent than islands of excellence resulting from scattered activities.

3. Sustaining a Shared Vision

Most executives do a good job of communicating a strong sense of urgency to effect change and move people out of their comfort zones. This often launches a flurry of activities in the right direction to start with. However, sustaining the quality and level of activities is a different ball game. For the abstraction that is called business, it requires more than organizational structure, incentives and job descriptions to have a multitude of people work in a concerted manner towards a common objective it requires a shared vision. It is one, in which everybody has a role to play, everybody clearly understands his or her role, and everyone knows “what is in it for me?”

Having a shared vision and communicating it well are essential in galvanizing a workforce to come together and stay together, during the process of change.

4. New Vision, Old Constraints

Doing the same old thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. As much as new tools and a new roadmap empowers people to do things differently, systemic constraints be it organizational structure or reward system – if not addressed adequately can seriously damage the credibility of the effort and make cynics out of employees.

Actions to confront big roadblocks early in the deployment phase can do the magic of boosting morale and providing momentum to overcome psychological hurdles throughout the organization.

5. Show Me the Money

In all fairness to the shareholders, every initiative should aim at producing measurable economic benefit to a business. Care should be taken to ensure that there is correlation between the metrics used to monitor improvement efforts and the bottom line. This may warrant adjustments to the accounting procedures2 to enable the identification of reform opportunities, drive the right activities and calculate project benefits consistently. In many cases, gains are realized only after a series of project segments (like a step function).

It is important in such cases to make sure that cost accounting doesn’t disincentivise the very activities that culminate into a breakthrough.

6. Success Breeds Success

Every large initiative can appear potentially daunting and overwhelming if not split into manageable chunks. A process always runs the risk of losing steam if there are no short-term goals and short-term wins defined. Short-term wins create enthusiasm and confidence amongst people and aid in team building.

This makes the ultimate goal look realizable to participants and helps garner support even from those who have been erstwhile resisting change and sitting on the sidelines.

7. Leaders Wanted

More often than not, management is incentivized to minimize risk and preserve the status quo. Change on the other hand requires creation of a new state of business, which naturally requires leadership. A paralyzed decision-making process (often the biggest impediment to change) is a symptom of having too many managers and not enough leaders.3

Great leaders transform cultures and stimulate breakthroughs. It is vital to have a good number of them on one’s side as champions of the renewal process.


1. Juran, Joseph M, Managerial Breakthrough: A New Concept of the Manager’s Job, New York: McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0070340374, 1995 (originally 1964).
2. Johnson, Thomas H., and Kaplan, Robert S., Relevance Lost – The Rise and Fall of Management Accounting, Harvard Business School Press, 1987.
3. Kotter, John P., Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail; Harvard Business Review, 1995.

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