Why continuous improvement may be preferable to change management

Change management has become a universally applied term in organizational development, but with 70 percent of transformations failing, according to McKinsey and Co., it may be time to look beyond existing change management models.

Before change management was fashionable, note researchers Linda Ackerman Anderson and Dean Anderson, organizational leaders determined what needed to be changed, then delegated the implementation to others. Eventually, when transformation failed or became more critical, leaders surmised that success required their direct attention and involvement.

This insight, according to the Andersons, gave rise to the field of change management. Its ascension was tangible proof that executives recognized that a new approach to introducing change was required. The use of a specific management system could instruct a leader on how to attend to change more thoughtfully and carefully.

But 45 percent of companies are still not experienced in any system of change management, based on a report from the University of North Carolina. The weakness of existing change management systems — and perhaps the reason that many companies do not have experience with them — is that almost all of the models view change as episodic and peripheral, requiring separate strategies from “ordinary” operations.

In a study of the eight most popular change management systems, Ben Mulholland concluded that all are time-consuming and require additional resources and expertise often not available internally. Some are top-down approaches that run the risk of alienating associates by appearing not to value their expertise. Others, conversely, are bottom-up approaches, making it difficult to attain high-level change. Still others are generalized checklists, lacking specificity in developing actionable steps, timelines or conditions for advancement.

Leaders cannot afford to waste time and effort learning and applying techniques that may have little value. Most organizational change efforts take longer and cost more money than leaders anticipate, so failure can be costly, and for some, emotionally draining.

Continuous improvement is a more appropriate way to operate in an environment in which change is both constant and pervasive. All of the benefits of change management, especially dealing with monumental change or urgency, can be accomplished through processes that also emphasize change within the context of regular organizational needs and operations.

In this process, transformation is gradual. It focuses on improving existing strategy, practices and products. It is well-measured, grounded and precise. Because it is gradual and anticipated, resistance is often not an issue, even when large change is necessary. And it takes committed leaders who believe that change, like operating an organization, is the responsibility of everyone.

Certainly, change management systems have the potential to foster nuanced conversion, and many have been beneficial in addressing significant changes in certain organizations. However, continuous improvement is a more natural approach to leading ongoing change. It is an approach that creates a culture focused on gradual improvement over time, rather than addressing change sporadically.

In upcoming columns, we will explore what this type of change looks like and how it can be put into practice.

Alex Johnson, Ph.D., is president at Cuyahoga Community College