How to make transformation work!

Six guiding principles according to field experts

At HillFive we support organizations on a daily basis with the implementation of self sustaining continuous improvement. To be able to exchange ideas with a number of experts on this subject, we organised a Round Table. We invited people from our network who have  many years of practical experience in shaping and leading large-scale change programs often based on methodologies such as Lean, Six Sigma, Agile and Scrum. We sat with eight guests and asked them about their experiences and their view on the boundary conditions for succesful implemention of change. The meeting was assessed by the participants as very pleasant and valuable. Thus we ended with the statement of one of the participants: “we are not finished yet, let’s organize this again.”

Because of the richness of the content that was shared by the participants, we decide to elaborate a bit on it and produce this blog to be able to share the insights more widely.

At the start of the meeting, we outlined the following curve as a framework, which we designed based on our own experience in designing and implementing large scale change programs.

Figure 1: Phases in the life of a change program

By strength of the program on the vertical axis we mean the combination of the level of support by management and the perception of the business results that are being delivered. How robust is the program at that moment in time? What is the chance that it will continue and the results will be guaranteed? In figure 2 we provide an explanation of the phases mentioned:


Phase Characteristics per phase
A The first pilot projects are running. Will there be enough senior management support?
B The first results are visible. Enthusiasm arises and on that basis the desire increases to accelerate. This is often the phase where the initiative is converted from a pilot project to a program.
C The first wave is behind us. Low hanging fruits have been picked. Further improvement may prove more difficult than expected, while expectations were high on the basis of the pilot results. The critics are gaining foothold.
D The program is under pressure. The energy for this particular change seems to be fading away. Other initiatives are emerging. From Lean to Agile & Scrum for example? After the initial enthusiasm, a really new impulse is needed to continue the change.
E Continuous improvement is now really part of the DNA. It is addressed structurally and has become a regular part of daily work. The program has been completed. The required competencies are secured in a department.

Figure 2: Phases during the life of a program to embed continuous improvement

There was great recognition among the participants regarding the outlined phases on the curve. The question was then: what can or should we do to travel this path as well as possible, ensure that we arrive in point E and continue to develop from there? In any case, we want to prevent the initiative in from ‘fading out’ around point D. We have clustered the items mentioned by the participants in six themes:

  1. ‘Tone at the top is essential:
    It will certainly not work without active support from senior management. Budget, active support, time of senior management and example behaviour are preconditional.
  2. Be clear and transparent:
    Communicate clearly about your intentions and objectives of the program.
  3. Keep going, stamina is required for success:
    A ‘second push’ is required to overcome the ‘valley of despair’.
  4. Secure alignment with HR:
    Alignment of required competencies with jobprofiles for recruitment, selection and promotion is a must. Otherwise it’s like carrying water to the sea.
  5. Take a relevant business challenge as a starting point, not the methodology:
    The tools are a means, the objective is to improve business results.
  6. Bring in experts and develop the required competencies internally:
    The pilot must succeed. That requires expertise, but pay attention to the transfer of knowledge and the development of skills internally.

1. ‘Tone at the Top’ is essential

The successful design, implementation and securing of a continuous improvement program requires proactive support from top management. That is obvious and perhaps an open door, however not always a given. A policy of condonement by senior management with regard to the pilots or the program is really insufficient. They have to participate actively and visibly. Practice what you preach! So don’t just free up the budget and allow it to happen. Allocate time yourself, show exemplary behaviour and make active contact with the shopfloor. “Go to Gemba” in Lean terms.

2. Be transparent and clear

Transparency and therefore also honesty about the intentions and goals of the initiative is essential.

  • Start with a clear framework. Choose an approach and method, and demand that everyone participates. Then you can let go. Starting on a voluntary basis makes the initiative too vulnerable in the initial phase.
  • Communicate regularly and consistently. In the perception of employees, gaps in communication are mostly filled in with ‘worst case scenarios’. Unpleasant messages should also be clear and transparent.
  • Take difficult but inevitable measures quickly. You can then continue to implement continuous improvement. In practice, we have seen cost cutting programmes that were communicated and designed under the name ‘Lean’. In this way however, it is not possible to establish a continuous improvement culture.

3. Keep going, stamina is required for success

The curve in figure 1 with points A to E was broadly recognised amongst the group of participants. The dip around point “D” was called the “valley of despair.” It requires a second push or new impulse and a (meanwhile implemented) solid management system to get through this valley. One of the things that can be done to ensure continuous improvement, or in other words, to go beyond point “D” is to define work as:

Work = work + improvement

This seems trivial, but it ensures that people learn to see the attention for continuous improvement as a standard part of their task. And when they are taught the right techniques in parallel through training, coaching and mentoring on-the-job, the results will be delivered.

4. Ensure alignment with HR

The most important HR related aspects that came up during the session were the following:

  • Develop leadership profiles that are in line with the behaviour that you want to see in the future situation. The behaviours and skills development are thus encouraged in the desired direction.
  • Secure the desired competencies in the job profiles for recruitment. This can also be used to guarantee that new hires can make a contribution, or in any case will not introduce a counterforce in the development.
  • Ensure that the desired competencies are linked to promotion policy. We have seen at some clients that participation in an improvement project was made a requirement for appointment into a senior management position.
  • Coordinate the hiring of external parties. HR is also often involved in the procurement or hiring of agencies that provide training in the field of leadership or personal effectiveness. Insufficient coordination between HR, these suppliers and the continuous improvement program will hamper the development of the target group and the effectiveness of the program.

5. Start from a business challenge, not from a methodology

The goal of achieving business performance improvement has to be paramount. The tools are only a means to an end. So for example “we have to be able to deliver our services faster and increase customer satisfaction, that’s why we are going to introduce an Agile way of working” or “we have to reduce our stocks and costs and that is why we are going to work with Lean.” The pitfall is that the implementation is only about tool training. Experience shows that merely training people in a classroom setting in the use of tools ultimately does not yield real business benefits.

6. Get experts in house and develop competencies internally

The effective implementation of continuous improvement requires specific competencies. These are often not immediately and sufficiently available at the start of an improvement program to achieve the desired results at the desired pace. In such a case, hiring external support can be a wise decision. Note that the external party does the following:

  • Including internal people in the change process with a train-the-trainer approach. The external party must ensure that the internal people develop the skills so that the program can ultimately be driven by internal people and without external parties, see Figure 3.
  • Ensure that the external party has it’s focus on solving a relevant business problem. This ensures that concrete performance improvement is achieved and that internal people are given the opportunity to apply the acquired theoretical knowledge in practice under supervision.

Figure 3: Model for on-the-job competency development

Another advantage of engaging external support is of course the conscious introduction of an “innovative outside look”. For example, consultants with additional experience in other sectors can provide a different viewpoint to the challenges present at that time.

The network of an external party can also be used to visit other companies that may be one step ahead in their maturity towards continuous improvement. The so-called “Go-and-See visits” are an effective way to provide a group of key players insights into the approach and the possible impact.

So far this blog, based on the outcome of a round table discussion with experts in the field of transformation, operational excellence, agile, scrum lean and change. We have experienced that, even people who are working in the arena of continuous improvement on a day to day basis, can still learn a lot from each other! The round table engagement will certainly be continued. Do you also wish to keep learning about continuous improvement and change in your organization? Would you like to contribute to an inspiring afternoon with change professionals? Contact us directly:

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