Changing the system and our habits all at once is often unsuccessful. Sometimes, small, incremental change, over time is a better approach.

That time of year is approaching where we all look in the mirror and admire the damage we have done to ourselves over the holidays, and make our resolutions to get back into shape… again. Unfortunately, most resolutions don’t survive the first month. Most of those that do won’t make it to three months. Why is that?

Change is hard, especially if it requires self-discipline to do what is not the easiest or most convenient thing at the moment. Face it — keeping the big picture in mind when faced with immediate challenges isn’t easy.

The same goes for instituting business improvement or process improvement initiatives. Many attempts to install continuous improvement programs fail. Some fall apart very quickly; some hang on longer.

A key to successful change is to choose a change strategy that best fits the personality of the organization. Change is painful. How do you like it? Will you rip the band aid off all at once and be done with it, or do you prefer to peel it off slowly, accepting a little discomfort at a time?

I’ll say what most of you have come to expect me to say: Improving our business through change is all about changing behavior. Changing habits and customary ways is not easy, and if we choose the approach that is wrong for us we will likely fail.
I strongly believe that the bad press that systems like Kaizen, Lean, and Six Sigma have received is not due to a failure of the program or methodology, but due to failed implementations, failures to change behavior successfully. It’s not that the programs are hard to do; it’s that making the sustainable change is hard to do.

When you go into the gym for the first time since January last year, again this year, find a face that you recognize, someone who is a regular patron. Ask him or her if it is hard to come to the gym every week. A regular patron will say, “No”. It has become part of a routine, a lifestyle. That same patron might confess, though, that it was hard to get started and to make the lifestyle change.

So, how will you make the work-style change that is going to improve your business performance? Often we try to make a complete change all at once. I think that the consultant phenomenon, combined with short-term corporate goal setting tends to drive us to try and make it happen rapidly.

Consultants are expensive and the prospect of keeping a firm engaged for more than a few months is hard for even wealthy corporate bankrolls to swallow. Likewise, when a corporate leader’s future with the company hinges on a single year’s accomplishments, we tend to try and make every major initiative fit into a single calendar year.

Unfortunately, making change happen quickly is painful. To be successful takes an excess of drive, commitment, courage, and drastic leadership. The only rapid change initiatives that I have read about or witnessed to succeed have happened, because the leader at the top adopted a “join me or perish” approach to getting the change enacted.

Personnel and leaders either jumped on board and changed the way they worked according to the top leader’s expectations, or they were fired and their role given to someone willing to cooperate. It is extremely unpleasant, like tearing a band aid off of road rash (or worse), but it can be, and has been, done.

There is another way, though. Many successful programs have grown out of businesses a little at a time. The change occurred slowly and incrementally over time. This method can make the discomfort of change a little easier to live with. I warn you it does not require any less planning, follow through, or leadership.

Just as it is easy to stop part way through removing the band aid to take a rest, it can be too easy to stop part way through executing your desired change. The difference is, that while the band aid will probably eventually be removed, the change we started may never finish if we don’t keep up the momentum.

In the same way that many fitness trainers take a behavioral approach to setting clients on the path to sustainable fitness, we can guide our organizations through a behavioral change approach to continuous business improvement. Let me share some brief thoughts to get the planning process started.

The fitness approach may start off as a few appointments with the trainer where we do what the trainer says. If we make only one appointment at a time, we run the risk of not making the second or third appointment while we nurse our sore muscles with a pint of ice cream. No, we know that we need to set up our appointments in advance and we need to show up.

But we also know that we can’t afford to pay a trainer every time we want a workout. This is just like the consultant phenomenon. So, we make our engagements with the consultants and we set an expectation that the consultants are going to teach us some basics of the improvement system we have selected.

That’s step one. The next step is to start going to the gym on our own and trying some of the exercises our trainers have taught us. Perhaps we even have a routine mapped out by our trainers. We make a commitment to do them.

We do the same with business. We set an expectation that our personnel and ourselves follow through with some exercises that we have learned from our consultants.

That’s step two. That’s also about as far as most of us make it before things start to fall apart.

Fitness trainers driving a behavioral approach focus on making one habit change at a time. We have described making time for the gym as the first. Next we might tackle diet, but not all at once. Maybe the first thing is to cut out is soft drinks or the flamboyant morning espresso/coffee/cappuccino routines that contain more calories than any single meal of the day. Those habits alone can break many an American, so the plan is not to add more change right away. Just make the one.

In business terms we might choose a single process, or a single business metric to focus on. Just use what the consultants taught us for a little while, to change a single system or metric. Once we have that change in place and sustainable, we can begin to add more changes, again, one at a time.

Start by changing a single metric. Then choose a system or function. Pick a manageable, but meaningful one like order entry or customer service. Once we have some experience and confidence there, move to another like material supply or a single production system.

Alternatively, we might focus on habits to change instead of systems. These require some expert leadership, because we must set an example and we must encourage the desired behavior while discouraging the undesired behavior. We might start like this.

Pick a behavior that you want everyone to follow. It should be part of a planned set of successful behaviors that you have identified as the future state of your business.

Let’s say that the first is to install a common method for problem solving. Maybe it’s the Plan-Do-Check-Act approach common to Kaizen, for example.

Without worrying about making a great many behavioral changes all at once, set the habit of interrogating every problem using the desired common approach. Let’s say that a production team is challenged with increasing output of a single production line. Ask them, “What is your plan?” When they offer a good plan tell them, “Do it, then tell me how it works.” Then follow up with, “Did you check the output, is it what you need or expected?” Finally, when the output is an improvement, tell them to “act” or execute and make the change permanent.

Don’t do so subtly. Make it known that the new way is to solve problems with Plan-Do-Check-Act, or whatever method you have chosen, and set the expectation that everyone do so. Only once everyone in the business is comfortable participating in the common method, and it’s use is becoming standard action instead of forced activity, should we move to installing the next habit.

Perhaps the next habit can be to “know what success looks like and never lose sight of it.” It is a habit of clearly defining what the final outcome should look like and then ensuring that the effort isn’t complete until that outcome is achieved, or that we don’t settle for a different outcome.

It can be any behavior that you like. It can be a behavior linked to an important business metric. It doesn’t matter. Just focus on one at a time.

The beauty of the one-at-a-time approach is that we gain confidence in our initiative and our ability to achieve the improvement we want as we successfully make each small system change or behavioral change. As things improve for one group, other groups begin to ask for the improvement too. The organization accepts, instead of resists, the changes… eventually.

The first few changes are a struggle. But, they are made more manageable by the fact that they aren’t also taking place at the same time as other difficult adjustments.

There is less shock to the system.

The same reason that resolutions fail is often the same reason that improvement initiatives fail. We try to change too much all at once, and our will power, or tolerance for the difficulty is not up to the challenge. If such is the case for your organization, don’t be disappointed in a perceived lack of heroic wherewithal. Accept that an all-at-once change just isn’t right for your group. Instead plan out a one-at-a-time, incremental change.

“Change is a process, not an event.” Some of us can make a decision and the change is made. Not all of us work that way. Not every organization can tolerate all-at-once-change, and probably not every organization should.

Take some time while the year wraps up and you are planning next year’s initiatives to examine what sort of change process is best for your group. If an incremental change is likely to be more successful, plan it that way. Also, consider the same for your new year’s resolutions. Maybe this can be the year you actually do get fit, and save the business too.

Stay wise, friends.

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