When you ask people if they would like to be involved in continuous improvement, they are likely to say, “Of course!” But ask them if they would like to experience continuous change, and you’re likely to get a different answer. Of course, improvement requires change, so what gives?
The difference is that “improvement” describes the desired state, a positive outcome. “Change” addresses the messy, risky process of getting there. Fear of the unknown is a normal human reaction that keeps us safe in many ways, so it’s normal for people to resist change. It’s also impossible to improve business results without it. That means that leaders need to become exceptionally good at helping people embrace and instigate change. Here are four things you can do to help your organization overcome barriers to change.
1. Implement Structured Change Management
As we mentioned, much of the resistance to change is about fear of the unknown. Good change management practices mitigate this fear by baking-in risk reduction and getting employees involved from the beginning. When people feel good about the change, they are less resistant, and the outcome is likely to be better.
Structured change management starts with Standard work. Unless a process is performed consistently according to documented best practices, it is impossible to implement, measure, and adhere to an improved process. Standard work leads to reliable expectations. That stability forms a strong foundation for change.
The next step is to have clear goals and desired outcomes for change. Why are we changing the process, and what do we hope to achieve? When people understand the reasons for change, resistance is lower.
Ideally, it will be the process operators themselves who identify the need for change and come up with ideas for improvement. In that case, you get the opposite of resistance; you get engagement.
The Lean technique of A3 is an especially useful way to document and organize any improvement project.
2. Plan for Resistance
Even with the best change management process in place, you should still expect some level of resistance. It is simply more difficult for the human brain to do something new than it is to resort to what it already knows. When you ask for change, you are asking for additional effort and thought.
It pays to think about who may resist the project from the very beginning. Typical areas of push-back include:
- People who are invested in the current method
- Employees who created the current process
- The people or teams that advocated for an alternative idea
- Employees who are very well accomplished in the current process and have been rewarded for it
Once you’ve identified the folks who are likely to resist, you can proactively engage them in the project and address their concerns directly.
3. Address the Root Causes of Resistance
Although people don’t do it very often, it’s OK to talk about resistance to change. Ideally, organizations should have a culture in which an employee would be comfortable saying, “I don’t want to make that change because I’m afraid I won’t be able to meet my performance goals.” In that case, you can address that concern or explore other options. If the employee never expresses their apprehension, you’ll probably get resistance that you don’t expect or understand.
In studies, several root causes for reluctance to change appear. They include:
- Lack of understanding about why the change was necessary
- Impact on job function
- The organization’s past experience with change
- Lack of commitment and support from leaders
- Fear of job loss
Communication and transparency can go a long way in addressing all of these fears.
4. Implement Incremental Improvements
One sure way to help employees get more comfortable with change is to score some small wins. Improvement doesn’t necessitate a massive overhaul to familiar ways of working. Results can be improved with one small adjustment after another. When people experience positive change that isn’t enormously disruptive, they become more comfortable with the team’s ability to incrementally improve regularly. When change is commonplace, it’s a lot less frightening.
If you keep these four tips in mind and communicate openly, you can reduce resistance and even expect people to welcome and get excited about trying something new.