Embedding Improvements and Making Changes Stick

Having invested in making improvements to the processes and systems within your organisation, is it likely that there will be problems ensuring those same improvements remain in place? With 83% of organisations reporting that they face substantial change in the near future and only 61% of organisations reporting that they have successfully introduced improvements that have lasted previously means that at least 22% will experience problems with their implementation.

This problem is compounded further by the fact that outperformers (organisations that are effective at implementing improvements) report an 80% success rate for embedding change, but the underperformers report as low as an 8% success rate. This means that the real performance gap may be much greater for some organisations.

Effective preparation for improvement programmes will ensure that implementation occurs seamlessly, but ensuring that the improvements made ‘stay put’ requires a different set of skills. IN particular, these need to deal with the fact that, ‘Every day we are faced with a peculiar paradox – that we live in a state of constant flux yet we abhor the process of change.’

Understanding the Journey

A typical improvement journey consists of three main phases that can be broadly described as:

· Preparation Phase – getting the organisation ready for improvement, setting down the objectives of the improvement programme and putting in place the resources to implement the changes.

· Implementation Phase – the physical processes of implementing the change and obtaining the initial improvements.

· Embedding Phase – the transition phase from ‘this is a new way of doing things’ to ‘have we ever done it any other way?’ This is otherwise known as the transition from having changed processes to the point of changing behaviours.

Within these three phases there are six key transition or crisis points. Each of these points represents a critical stage in the process of implementing improvements. They are summarised in below.

Transition Point 1: Decision to Improve


Normally this stage is triggered by a realisation within the ‘guiding influence’ within the organisation (normally the board) that current standards and activities are unacceptable and that things need to change.


The typical reaction to this phase are that ‘this is not the right time’ as well as confusion about what needs to be done and therefore mixed messages from leaders, often leading to a drop in productivity.

Transition Point 2:Strategic Planning


This is about determining what needs to be done (and who will do it), how the work links to the organisational strategy (or whether the strategy needs to be amended). There will also normally be a ‘Go/No Go’ decision at this point made by the senior leaders.


Some managers will attempt to derail the process and move the focus from their own areas to other areas. There will be a lot of disagreement about the content of the strategy and attempts to downgrade (or less likely upgrade) the scope and duration of the improvement programme will be commonplace, particularly if the senior leaders have a crisis of confidence.

Transition Point 3:Preparation to Implement


There will then be a series of activities such as communicating what is going on, training, gathering data and preparing the team for the implementation phase.


Concern will grow within the organisation, although this will be partly balanced by some excitement about the change process ahead.

Transition Point 4: The Noise of Implementation


This is when the physical changes are implemented using a variety of different mechanisms.


Some things will go well and others not so well. The ‘nay sayers’ will focus on the failures and managers will often have a crisis of confidence that may lead to early termination of the programme.

Transition Point 5: Adoption of Improvements


The excitement of implementation events and activities has started to die down and at this point the team are left to work with the new processes and systems.


Those not involved, or not positive about the implementation approach used, will try to undo the work done. Bad habits that existed before will still be there and will further degrade the achievements made if not effectively managed.

Transition Point 6: Improvements Embedded


At this point people forget that there was a different way of doing things and the culture has therefore changed (given that culture is best defined simply as ‘the way things are done here’). This is when the process change achieved at Point 4 becomes behaviour change.


Occasional snipes by ‘nay sayers’ occur but broadly there is neither the will nor often the ability to go back to the old ways of working.

Experiencing Reactionary Forces

All four issues will be encountered throughout the journey to improvement, but will be especially damaging ‘post implementation’ as they are the underlying reasons why improvements fail to embed themselves within organisations. A commentary on each of the four issues is below.

The Four Issues

Issue 1: Ignorance

Ignorance is often accompanied by fear of the unknown. It can be tackled through effective (and on-going) communications, involving people in the process of improvement and giving them the skills to know how to embed the improvements after they have been put in place.

Issue 2: Lethargy

Improvement programmes run out of steam very quickly if there is not an effective ‘pace’ put on the programme. A lack of pace is normally indicative of unclear objectives for the programme and a lack of a sense of urgency from the senior team. In the words of Will Rogers, “Even if you’re on the right track you’ll get run over if you just stand there.”

Issue 3: Committees

Encouraging individual initiative and empowering leaders to make decisions and deal with issues (and then supporting them when they do) will avoid the dominance of committee or group thinking within organisations. If individuals feel threatened or at risk, they will not support it.

Issue 4: Inflexibility

The strategy and approach you start with may not be the most appropriate six months or two years later, and being blunt, there is no one single approach to making improvements work. Being prepared to experiment, learn from experience and broadly keep going is the key to success.

Remembering that improvement is more about people than about the process, you need to bear in mind that, throughout the process of making improvements, individuals will be thinking at every stage about ‘WIIFM’ (What’s in it for me?) This doesn’t mean solely the financial impact of the change. It can include:

1. Will I gain or lose something I value?

2. Do I understand the nature of the change?

3. Do I trust those who is initiating the change?

4. Do I agree with the change?

5. How do I feel about this change?

Any concerns in these areas are unlikely to manifest themselves in the direct, ‘Will I lose my job through this process?’ Instead, you will encounter inertia and resistance which, when challenged leads to comments such as, ‘I’m too busy’, ‘Now is not the time’, ‘If we recruit more people the problems will go away’. In reality, these reactions are fed by fear and ignorance: fear of what might happen and ignorance of either how to do it or why it is needed.

The way leaders at all levels behave will significantly affect how teams react to the changes that have been implemented. Leaders who show no interest in the new ways of working, who actively push the team to work in the ‘old way’ or who, through words or actions, show that they disagree with the vision and objectives for the improvement programme are likely to lead to improvements that just slip away.

In addition, environments that do not ‘allow’ people to comment constructively on the changes going on around them, or where teams operate along tribal lines with poor communication between them, the probability of success is very low. Both of these issues are directly related to the management environment that the organisational leaders have established.

Another question to consider is whether or not you have an environment that encourages people to get involved in improving performance? In one study, over 80% of clinicians and over 60% of nurses reported having witnessed colleagues who had done things that concerned them about the safety of patients, yet only 10% had felt able to speak to the colleague about it.

Lastly, where you might feel the desire to ‘by-pass’ difficult people and teams and, perhaps, implement the improvements without involving such people, remember the following piece of advice from Stephen Covey: ‘Without involvement, there is no commitment. Mark it down, asterisk it, circle it and underline it. No involvement, no commitment.’

Here are two interventions from leaders that had a negative effect on their teams. The first is a leader giving a ‘team talk’ prior to implementing some changes to a clinical process and the second is from a senior leader who was following up with a team who had made some major improvements in the way they managed their new product development process:

1. “Right, guys. I’m not sure what we’ve been asked to do or why they’ve picked on us but I’ve been told we have to make a big improvement in our department. I’m not sure what we can really do given how hard everyone is already working.”

2. “I thought we were already doing this? Wasn’t there anything innovative that you managed to do?”

Not unsurprisingly, in the first case the team achieved nothing and in the second the benefits that the organisation could have had slipped away quickly.

Failing to follow up on ‘post implementation’ action plans or deal with issues and problems that arise creates a further set of reactions that, if handled well, will enhance the embedding process and vice versa.

In terms of ‘to do’ lists, most improvement programmes or events end up with a long-list of post implementation actions that need to be ‘owned’ and implemented. If there is no visible progress on dealing with these actions it will reinforce the messages the team have heard unofficially from the ‘hard core resisters’: that their efforts are being wasted and it will not lead to any real improvement. In addition, when problems arise there will be an immediate reaction that wants to drive the process back to the ‘old way’ of doing things because ‘the old way used to work’. If this is not managed effectively, the team will dismantle everything it has achieved.

Structuring To Ensure Success

The four things that need to be done to deliver a successful and sustainable transformation programme are shown below.

Action 1: Understand the Context

Being clear about the where and why an organisation needs to improve based on analysis of the market forces, needs of stakeholders and current issues (such as new technology, regulation etc).

If the team cannot see why something has been done they will not care about it and will prefer to stay as they were. This will lead to them going back to their ‘old ways’ at every opportunity.

Action 2: Manage the Gap

Understanding the actual performance and the required performance and then actively managing this gap. Recognition that things are getting better will help to reinforce the new ways of doing things and encourage further improvement.

Action 3: Maintain Stakeholder Commitment

Leaders need to maintain their interest in the improvement process until the team move from process change to behaviour change.

Action 4: Monitor, Evaluate, Support & Improve

Making improvement and progress a regular board matter, evaluating what has happened, support front-line teams and continuously improving the way the improvement process is working.

Front line teams who generally support the improvement process will get better results than those who don’t. Leaders at all levels are responsible for supporting their teams to adopt the new ways of doing things and leading by example.

So what are the ‘outperformers’ doing?

A study with those who out-performed their peers in terms of implementing and embedding improvements to organisational processes and systems showed that the specific differences were in the following areas – in order of importance:

· Sponsorship – having a top level champion who supports and advocates the change

· Engagement – gaining and maintaining stakeholder engagement

· Honest and timely communications – ‘honest’ is the key word in this statement

· Culture that promotes change – a long term focus on changing the behaviour of the organisation

· Change agents – individuals with the capability to lead the actual improvement process

· Capability building – continuing investment in building the internal capability of the organisation

· Performance measures – effective measures that are available to, and understood by, everyone

· Effective structure – an effective and flexible structure for the improvement programme

· Incentives – robust financial and non-financial incentives

Once, discussing the issues surrounding the journey an organisation I was working with had been through, one of the organisation’s leaders said something like this:

“Having got through the inertia that surrounded us at the start of the programme, I felt like we had got into the green fields beyond when we finished the implementation in my area. In reality, I now realise we hadn’t even started the journey. While actually implementing the changes seemed, at first, to be the fun bit, all the work we have had to do since has been ‘hard work’ – particularly dealing with concerns and issues. It is only now, when people are forgetting that we used to have such poor performance, that I realise the value of the journey we have been through.”