Want Lasting Business Change? Leave the Tools on the Shelf

Robin Barnwell

Why do so many businesses fail to achieve long-term and lasting change?, asks contributor Robin Barnwell. Because they fail to take account of the most important variable in any messy, uncontrollable and complex environment - the people.

I’ve studied the complete Lean Six Sigma body of knowledge. I’ve experimented, practiced, written -about, read-around, deployed and generally gained experience in all of it. I have a vast collection of tools at my disposal.

But do you know what? I think there is a great big hole in the approach. I think too much emphasis is placed on structures & tools and too little on people & cultures. I think this is prevalent across the spectrum from our training & certification through to our books & thought leadership.

Do you focus too much on tools?

Now I’ve always worked in services businesses. Never manufacturing so I cannot talk about that. In services it’s all about People. Everywhere you look there are people talking, laughing, complaining, doing, not doing, inventing, making mistakes, making decisions and a whole myriad of other things. They are all different and can have diametrically opposed views and agendas. They take the systems, incentives, processes, culture, and own experiences and try to make it work. People are the true process. It’s a messy, uncontrollable and complex environment.

Now you could approach delivering improvement logically, systematically and by the book. Start at the top and gain buy-in. Build your objectives and delivery strategy. Organise communications. Train and sell the approach – win hearts & minds. Select "show case" projects to reinforce rapid delivery of benefits. Bring key people onboard to achieve the tipping point that allows the "herd" to follow. That sort of thing should do the trick, be orthodox and structured.

Then why do so many businesses fail to achieve long-term and lasting change? Because messy, uncontrollable and complex environments don’t work logically, systematically and by the book. I’ve seen a number of major improvement programmes over the years. These initiatives get absorbed as yet another factor, rapidly evaluated and frequently rejected – people move on. The need for people to actually change, to do something differently, has got to be compelling.

So the skills & training to understand people and their behaviour and influence them to change is absent from the approach. But in a services business it’s the single most important factor for delivering lasting change. Lasting change does not happen overnight it’s a hard slog. It starts with connecting with people, understanding them, seeing things from their point of view. Look to set in place the four things you need for people to change:

  • A compelling reason to change – it’s got to make sense
  • A clear direction agreed – people need to shape and agree the outcome
  • The resources to do the job – you can’t just be another item on an increased to-do list
  • Clear and actionable next steps - people need to know where to begin

You could read into this my own personality profile and the degree to which I believe I can change the environment and you wouldn’t be wrong. But from what I’ve experienced, if you really want to make a lasting change it’s all about people.