5 Key Elements of Managing Change in Improvement Projects

by Chris Rees November 18, 2015
November 18, 2015

In Lean Six Sigma (if you’re new to Six Sigma, why not view this post on “What is Lean Six Sigma“), or any improvement activity, there will always be change, because without change things stay the same, and if they stay the same, there cannot be improvement. So in any effort or project to improve things, managing change will always be a part of the process.


Knowledge of technical tools will therefore not be enough to ensure a successful project; knowledge of change management tools will also be required.


Consider when you have been involved in either a successful or unsuccessful change in the past and list the features of both situations. Components often found in successful change initiatives include:



  • Strong leadership – a person or perhaps group of people were providing direction and driving the change to make sure it happened. There are many examples of strong leadership, great political leaders of the past are often quoted, Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, or sporting figures such as Alex Ferguson. We may or may not agree with the direction and policies they promoted but there is no denying their leadership qualities and the fact that they directed change effectively.
  • Clear and motivating goals and objectives – there was a vision for the future, and this vision was something that inspired and motivated those involved. It was a vision of a better situation than the present conditions. Examples include Google’s goal to “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, or John F Kennedy’s Moon Challenge that “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”.
  • The need for the change was communicated – leadership was constantly communicating both the need for the change, the vision for the future and the steps involved in getting there. Consider once again Winston Churchill and those famous radio broadcasts, which kept a Nation firmly aware of the situation, the need for the changes being made and the progress towards the goal.
  • Resistance was managed – we already know that there will always be resistance to any change, in successful change initiatives the resistance is effectively managed, to ensure that those against the change are not allowed to prevent progress being made. Of course resistance should not be ignored; it must be listened to and managed. A political example was the miners’ strike in 1984 in the UK when there was huge resistance and extensive strike action against the closure of many coal mining pits. The strike became a symbolic struggle, as the NUM was one of the strongest unions in the country, but it ended in March 1985 following a vote to return to work. It was a defining moment in British industrial relations, and the NUM defeat significantly weakened the British trade union movement. It was seen as a major political victory for Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party.
  • The culture was modified to encourage change – successful change initiatives involve changing the culture, or “the ways things are done around here”, to make the change itself seem easy to achieve, and to encourage further change in the future. Michael Hyatt, president of Thomas Nelson, confirms the importance of culture, and of changing culture in his efforts to improve performance of the company over short timescales.

Unsuccessful changes initiatives involve the opposite of the above points, lack of clear goals, the need for the change was never understood by those affected, there was a lack of leadership, lack of communication or those resisting the change were allowed to “win”.


Interestingly none of the above points include technical tool usage, all of them focus on people issues.


Q x A = E#


Jack Welch, CEO of GE during the 1990’s, recognised the importance of people issues during his tenure at GE, and wanted to accelerate rate of change and improve take up of new initiatives such as six Sigma. Jack challenged a team of consultants to study best practices in change management and come back to GE with a tool kit that GE managers could easily implement.  The result was the Change Acceleration Process, commonly referred to within GE simply as “CAP.”


The team studied hundreds of projects and business initiatives.  One of their key insights was that application of good technical tools is not sufficient to guarantee success.  A high percentage of failed projects had excellent technical tools.  As an example of such a project, consider a business adopting a new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system enterprise-wide.  Typically a great deal of effort is put into the technical tools – to deploy the hardware and software, train the employees and so on. The team found that it is lack of attention to the cultural factors that cause project failure of such systems – not the technical tools.


The consultants created the Change Effectiveness Equation, “Q x A = E” as a simple way to describe the importance of cultural acceptance.  It means the Effectiveness (E) of any initiative is equal to the product of the Technical Quality (Q) of the approach and the Cultural Acceptance (A) of that approach.  In other words, paying attention to the people side of the equation is just as important to success as the technical side. Jack advised his Master Black Belts to spend at least 50% if their time on the “A” side of the equation, and not just focus on technical tools.


At Sigma we advise improvement project leaders to consider five key elements when managing change in projects:



  • Focus on the “A” side of the Q x A = E equation
  • Provide Leadership
  • Establish clear goals and objectives
  • Manage resistance
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate

Of course, being involved in lean six Sigma means having a structured approach for the above points, and that is covered in the next article!


# Overview of GE’s Change Acceleration Process (CAP) – January 25, 2009, Bob Von Der Linn’s HPT Blog

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