I’ve been delivering Lean Improvements in organisations for over 15 years. I see resistance in almost every project I’ve delivered. Sometimes, it’s minor and sometimes, its maximum resistance and sometimes, it kills the improvement completely. The big question of course is… Why?

I see a lot of rhetoric online about people not willing to change. You might have even seen this simple comic:

What really kills change and improvement projects Blog

At my most generous, I think this oversimplifies the issue. If I’m being harsh – I would say this is completely wrong.

Most people aren’t resistant to change. I’ve spoken to 1,000s of business people in my efforts to improve processes in dozens of organisations. It’s quite rare that I find people just resistant to change.

‘Culture’ seems to be another reason people look to when finding a reason for lack of lean improvement. But I’ve worked in brilliant cultures that still struggle to deliver lean improvements.

So what is the reason? Well, it’s all about competition.

Reason #1 – Competing purpose

When you’re trying to get an improvement agreed, you often have to liaise with other areas. Sometimes you will find that the purpose of one area is completely opposite to your purpose.

For example, I want to make a change to a process that introduces a ‘risk-based approach’ to compliance, reducing the amount of compliance checking in line with likelihood & risk of an issue. Operations think it’s a great idea and is bought in. The Operation has said that if Risk signs off on it, they’ll implement. I speak to my Risk colleagues – they are dead against it. They understand the benefits, they understand the low risk of the change – but they will not sign off on it.

The reason is this – their purpose is to minimise or eliminate risk in the business. That’s all they care about (usually quite passionately). What they are measured on is the amount of breaches and reportable events that occur. You’re asking them to increase the chance (however small) of that happening. The fact that this change will save £100k & it will mean faster processing times for the customer is not aligned to their purpose. The change proposed is 100% in diametric opposition to their purpose.

Another good example is IT – we want to implement a new piece of software, but an enterprise architect won’t sign off because they’ve been given a remit to reduce the number of systems the organisation uses. Again, their purpose is working in opposition to our purpose to improve processes.

Reason #2 – Competing Responsibilities

The bigger the organisation, the greater the proliferation of colleagues whose role and remit overlaps significantly with another area. In really big organisations, it’s not an overlap – rather a duplication of responsibilities.

For example, a Bank might have a team in charge of Channel Strategy. Then they will also have a team responsible for Branch Strategy, Call Centre Strategy, Digital Strategy, ATM Strategy etc – and these colleagues will all report to different people. How can you develop a channel strategy when other people are in charge of the strategy in their channel?

The impact of this kind of thing is that numerous contradictory strategies get created and because they don’t unite around a single strategy – they end up not getting implemented.

A strategy that is not implemented, is just an expensive piece of paper.

Reason #3 – Competing demands on capacity

Lastly, when you are making changes to a process, whether big or small, you need to rely on people who are the subject matter experts (or SME’s) of the areas you’re working in. These are the brilliant people who know the process inside out – they know a lot about the history, they are the ‘go-to’ people whenever management has a question or an issue. And that’s the problem. All projects want a piece of these ‘go-to’ people and their time only cuts so many ways.

For example, I was speaking to an SME recently who has 7 projects that she is actively involved in delivering but she can only really handle the demands of 4 of them. But she’s trying to please everyone and it’s causing her heaps of stress and she’s getting frustrated and starting to lash out at stakeholders. The stakeholders for their part, are only looking at what they are asking her to do and don’t understand why she can’t just do what they need.

This is probably a failure of communication and planning more than anything else. But think about this – rather than being resistant to change, this person is the complete opposite. She’s a huge advocate of change – she’s just overstretched beyond reasonable delivery.

And that’s my list. It’s not definitive – I’m sure there are other reasons why change and improvement fails, but in my experience, these are the top 3 reasons why improvements don’t land.

I don’t think that people generally are resistant to change. If you think that’s what’s stopping you – then you’re not really finding the root cause here.

A poor culture might make it harder to improve – but you can have the best culture in the world, but still have these more systemic issues.

-Lean Consulting