A few years back I was working with the US Air Force developing a change strategy methodology that would be executed using Lean and Six Sigma tools. During a meeting with one of the generals he was told; “We have been running improvement projects here for 10 years and I have no idea if we’re doing anything better. From what I can tell everything seems to be running the same.”
The author asked the general; “What was the metric that you used to measure success?”
The general replied; “I have no idea.”
This example strikes at one of the key failure points of any change management project. If you don’t measure the improvement, how do you know if you succeeded? You need a base line measurement at the start of the project and you need to follow the metric through the improvement process to its completion in order to see if any improvement actually occurred.
This article looks at change management failures and makes recommendations that will help the reader to avoid these pitfalls in the future.
For the purpose of this article we are focused on change management projects. We are specifically looking at projects that focus on organizational transformations. For example, we may want to improve the cycle time for processing the paperwork around a production order, or focusing on inventory reduction in the maintenance area. These are specific improvement projects and we can clearly define what is in scope and what is out of scope for this project.
Another point that needs clarification is whether a failure is real or perceived. In the Air Force example above we have no idea if there is really a failure here or if improvements actually occurred. For the general the improvements were perceived to be failures because there is no evidence of their success. The only thing that is important is what is perceived, and if we have no data to support an actual improvement, perception becomes reality.
The Root Causes for Change Management Failures
In this section we will look at specific Root Causes for failures. We will explore areas that have been identified as failure points for change management projects. This will offer the reader a set of pressure points that he or she will need to watch out for.
1. Lack of Strategic Perspective – A key question to ask when engaging in any change management project is; “Is there a strategic purpose for this change or is this something on someone’s random list of things that they would like to see accomplished?” There needs to be a strategic reason for what you are doing. It needs to fit into a larger purpose, or we should not waste our time doing it. The author has often encountered improvement initiatives that were later deemed irrelevant because of a more strategic event, like an acquisition, or the elimination of a process that we just improved. Strategic direction is critical in the identification and execution of any change management improvement project.
2. No top management commitment – Strategic alignment should offer us top management commitment, but unfortunately there is no guarantee. For that reason it is important to get management to “sign on the dotted line” for any change management project that we may be engaged in. That line is on the project charter and the project should not be started without the necessary signatures.
3. Poor project definition – Hand in hand with a lack of strategic perspective goes the principle that far too often projects are not clearly defined. Far too often the scope that the sponsor is focused on turns out to be different than the scope the change management team has assumed. Or, because of a lack of clear definition, the change project takes on a life which is completely different than the one that was originally intended. The key to clear project definition is a well-defined project charter that includes a definition of scope, metrics, team members, and sponsors.
4. Incomplete participation – Project failures occur if we “assume” that a specific change will not impact other elements of an organization. For example, if we leave out a critical team member we may unintentionally disrupt something that should not have been disrupted. For example, the author encountered a situation where a grinder was moved to a location which significantly improved the process flow and reduced cycle time, but the new location of the grinder caused a dust that seriously affected a near-by paint booth. The result was that the project was deemed a failure and the grinder had to be moved back to its original location. Similar problems occur if we leave the IT or quality departments out of change management decision processes. These types of failures can be avoided if we carefully include all the appropriate and necessary individuals on the change management team.
5. Missing or invalid Metrics – As mentioned in numerous articles, metrics should not be focused on data collection, they should be focused on motivation. Metrics drive a guided response. Appropriately defined metrics can mean the difference between guiding a team toward success or failure. Additionally, metrics are the only meaningful evidence that anyone accepts when it comes to proving that the change management project actually made a difference.
6. No Project Management – The PMO (Project Management Office) role is a critical role. Without it change management efforts often spin out of control and generate their own work streams which can go on forever. The PMO process offers guidance and direction. It gives the process follow-through. Part of the PMO function is to develop a dashboard that tracks the metrics and the time-line of the project allowing the project sponsor to see if the project is on track.
7. The Random Event – In spite of all our good intentions, we can get hit by the random event which is unforeseen and unexpected. For some reason we are not able to executed as anticipated. In a recent article in Quality Digest Magazine focused on Lean Six Sigma failures the author Carly Barry recommends the use of a Risk Assessment table as a tool that we can use for assessing the potential success or failures of change management projects. It would need to be customized to specifically fit the reader’s environment, but it’s use will at least draw attention to potential failure points as we go through the project planning process. The random event may not be avoided, but we can at least take steps to prepare us for it.
The Keys to Avoiding Change Management Failures
I was the lead on a project initiated by the CEO of the largest company in the world (based on revenue). The scope of the project had been defined and the metrics identified, and the sponsor was the CEO. But this was in a country where commitments of this type were temporary, and the scope was constantly changing. There were a multitude of hidden agendas that came into play and if the leadership didn’t agree with the results that were coming out of the project, they would simply redefine the project to make it fit. In the end, the project became something completely different than what was originally defined. If we evaluate the project based on its original definition it would need to be labeled a failure. But if we look at the project after all the scope changes, it would be labeled a success. What the project ended up becoming was something that wasn’t even on the radar of the original project proposal.
The random events of the project described in the previous paragraph cannot be avoided. Sometimes the project becomes one of satisfying some underlying hidden agenda. But normally projects can and should be constructed with clear definitions.
The two key principles necessary for successful project execution are:
- Have a clearly defined and approved project charter
- Manage the project for its entire life
A project charter should contain the following:
- Strategically aligned goals
- Project scope
- Participants for both oversight and the active team members
- Clearly defined metrics
◾What do we measure?
◾How will they motivate the desired results?
◾What is the current state benchmark?
◾What is the desired future state which will be used to define success?
- Signature of the project sponsor and owner which signifies approval of the project and which gives us the go-ahead to execute
The management of the project also requires some type of oversight structure which includes a Project Management office and a project manager which is personally responsible for the success of this specific project. This function will use a dashboard to monitor the performance of the project.
It seems simple that only two elements are required in order to avoid poor project performance. Obviously there is much more to the formula for the successful execution of a project, like the performance of the team leader and the team itself. But, from the experience of this author, projects fail in the structure and management of the Charter and the PMO function.