Five Change Management Errors that Make You Wish You’d Read this Article Sooner

As part of the U.S. government spending to boost the economy, our city has been digging up ditches, replacing pipes and putting down sidewalks near my house for the past 6 months or so. The signs and announcements were there for weeks prior to the start of work. The surveyors were out and the spray painted markings on the asphalt all hinted strongly at changes to come. Even the rare resident who had missed those clues or the visitor speeding around the corner towards the construction zone were welcomed with flaggers holding stop-slow paddles, traffic cones and other visual controls. As change management goes, road construction crews do a good job and for good reason; taking safety for road construction workers lightly can lead to deadly mistakes.

Harvard Professor and author John Kotter revealed through his research that nearly one-third of change efforts that organizations undertake fail. Bain Consultancy has cited in a 2005 study that only 5% of companies are satisfied with their lean implementations. A majority of questions and comments on this blog are on the theme of “Help, lean isn’t working!” I like to say that lean only fails when you stop trying, but the fact is that lean can fail even before you really get started. I wish that someone had passed me an article like this one back when I was making these and other change management errors.

1. Starting your trip without a stakeholder map
The stakeholder map is basically a planning tool for your communication strategy. It analyzes who is supportive, indifferent or opposing the change efforts, to what degree and why. This information is plotted on a map so that they key stakeholders or stakeholder groups can be positively influenced through communication. Part of this is to understanding other initiatives that are ongoing so that conflicts can be removed and resources integrated. One of the chief benefits of a proper stakeholder map is the identification of well-intentioned people who may appear to be blocking or resisting when they are in fact only defending something that is a personal or company priority and is under threat by the change. A proper communication strategy allows you to align purpose with the maximum number of people. Listening is as important as speaking, if not more, in change management.

2. Debating methods instead of principles
To rephrase Deng Xiaoping, “Can we agreed that the mouse must be caught, or must we first agree on the color of the cat?” Back in the days when I started teaching TPS it seemed worth having the “Lean or six sigma or TOC or QRM or DFT?” debate. In those days it was much more common to see change efforts that had failed or were struggling. This was often due to poor quality of the program or an inadequate box of tools.
The formulate for effectiveness (E) of any change can be expressed as a product of quality of the solution (Q) and acceptance of that solution (A).

E= Q x A

In lean implementations it is very rare that the quality of the solution is the cause of failure. Much of lean is common sense, easy to learn and apply, and the potential breadth and depth of opportunity for waste reduction in most businesses is staggering. Lean may or may not be unique in this aspect, and it should be noted that both Q and A are important. However, for socio-technical systems such as lean, the acceptance of the change becomes the critical factor and the aim of change management. That’s why it’s best to spend most of the time debating the guiding principles and values of lean in order to gain deep alignment, and then let the tools and specific solutions follow from that.

3. Missing the “no” in the nod
I once heard a very effective public speaker and expert on behavior change say, “I don’t care what you think. I don’t care what you say. I care what you do.” That had a lasting impact on me. Of course thoughts and words have an influence on our actions, but it is our actions that have the most direct and visible consequences. This matters in managing change because much of the resistance to change is invisible, taking place in the minds or words of people and not in their actions. In certain cultures that are confrontation-averse, people will not openly oppose but resist passively. No amount of communication and head-nodding sessions result in lasting behavior change for these individuals, and to the change leader not clued into these behaviors it can be highly frustrating. The countermeasure is to give these people at least one way in which they can concretely demonstrate their support, every day. If they are not leaders, give them standard work to follow, and require that they find problems with and improve their standard work. If they are leaders, give them leader standard work and make their adherence to long-cycle standard work visible through accountability boards in high traffic areas of the workplace. Think of it as actively exposing the good behavior of people whose words and actions are in alignment. Those people will thank you for it.

4. Leaving people in the trough
Too often we misunderstand or underestimate the effect that a change has on the attitude and morale of our people. We need to give people a means to rapidly get out of the low point in the U curve where their attitude and performance is suffering. The impatient leader’s solution may be a shove out the door. In some cases that may be necessary but without understanding why we couldn’t help those people out of the trough the team will never become better than the very best people we hire. We will fail to develop systematically people. This is the part that education and practical training play a key role in building up competency. When people feel competent again in the new environment, their attitude about work will improve. This may seem obvious, but consider the disproportionate effect that attitude has on performance. A Standford University study concluded that 80% of success in any endeavor is attitude and 15% is based on ability. Therefore it is much more effective to work on training that improves attitude by addressing the root causes, and ironically most often this is due to the feeling of a loss from reduced competence, control or power. The quicker we can integrate people within the new system and give them back the appropriate competencies, the quicker their attitude and performance will soar.

5. Serving the pie, not the attitude
Even when the four change management errors above, and perhaps even a few others have been skillfully averted there is still much work left to do. As long as people feel they are creating value aligned with purpose, work is energizing. When the pace of change, either physical or mental, becomes too fast people feel overburdened and stressed. Neuroscientists have learned that in order to change behaviors we need to physically rewire the connections in our brains through thought and action, and this requires energy and time. With enough patience, time and the determination to never give up there is almost nothing that a leader can’t help a team accomplish. By the same token, with enough pushing, arrogance and insensitivity there is no amount of success, lead in the game or credibility that we can’t forfeit. Remember that change is all about the people who will live through and either support or not support it. When leading change, start with humility. Otherwise you will end up humbled.

I have come across many organizations that undertake major changes without any change management whatsoever. The need for change comes before the need for change management, and so often the related tools and skills. Change management is a series of activities to help people transition through change effectively. I have never seen an organization that invested in change management in the absence of an active or impending change effort. This is a shame as it can be too late to initiate change management activities when the changes are about to happen. All of these change management errors happen at the speed of thought, starting with the first hint of the coming changes.

I believe the progressive organization of the future will be constantly “change ready”. The progressive organization will never be caught flat-footed but will be on the balls of their feet, gently shifting the balance and ever testing the ability of people to respond quickly to changes. If we take the road construction analogy further, perhaps this means we need the organizational equivalent of traffic cones, people holding stop-slow paddles, and “fines double in work zones” rules so that we make decisions with less speed but more consideration of their consequences.

What’s worked for you? What errors have you made?


  1. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    January 14, 2010 - 6:39 am

    Great post Jon.
    One comment I would add is on the point of blockers. First, they often get a disproportionate share of attention. The adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” comes to mind. Blockers, or what I call anchors, are the most vocal against a change. However we will never convince them with words, so stop trying. Focus attention on others who are willing to move forward, and then eventually the blockers will have to make some tough decisions. If they are against the change because it requires too much energy on their part, at some point resisting the change will require more energy.
    The second thing about blockers is that some of them are actually very much for the change but they sound like blockers. This is because all their negative comments aren’t that the change is wrong, but that you’ll screw it up. They don’t want to see it screwed up. Listen to these people carefully. They often have the best, most pragmatic advice.
    Jamie Flinchbaugh

  2. Jon Miller

    January 14, 2010 - 4:57 pm

    Very good advice Jamie.

  3. Redge

    January 15, 2010 - 6:54 pm

    I think establishing a culture that fosters change is as important as the change itself. Patrick Lencioni wrote a great book titled “Three Signs of a Miserable Job”. It is an interesting leadership parable that demonstrates how a culture can be transformed by engaging the people.
    If the people understand their contribution and recognize the need for change they will certainly participate. The unfortunate fate of most programs is previous failures. We often spend more time selling the good things that will result from the change as opposed to the not so good things that will remain if we don’t.
    Steven J. Spear’s “Chasing the Rabbit” is another book that exemplifies how the culture of a company can be conditioned to make incredible leaps in their business. It starts from the top and the leaders or executives can make or break the program before it even makes it to a powerpoint presentation.
    People must be educated on the “problem” before they can embrace the solution. When we finally get to the point where we teach people to see problems, they inherently become change agents themselves.
    Two lines makes for difficult commentary so I will leave it here. Interesting article.