What happens after the project ends?

March 2012, Nils Randrup, Magnificent KB

In many companies slide back to the old way of doing things when an improvement project ends, after the improvement has been identified and implemented. Many organizations experience that within a short time after the conclusion of an improvement project or effort, slowly but surely the process and people involved loose interest or focus. So the initiative goes from in focus to being out of focus, the improvement activities are put on the backburner vs. other pressing issues, and the good intentions become just that again, good intentions.  Can we prevent the inevitable? Is it at all possible to make change stick when the spotlight is gone, and people have left the theater?


I once worked for a large international industrial company, which produce and sell important components to the food industry across the world. There CEO had identified the need for significant improvement in the offer handling and sales processes, since there were huge problems with on-time delivery of offers and waste of resources. A project group were quickly established, and I was invited in to help the project manager (a VP of sales) lead a project with the purpose of streamlining the offer and order processes. During 2 month the project group met regularly and we developed a good and solid proposal for how to change the working processes in such a way that offers were developed much quicker and with the use of fewer resources. We used the basic techniques from Lean Six Sigma and created 3 offer flows to accomplish this. At the conclusion of the project, the CEO signed off on the improvements, the revised processes. The Sales department was asked to implement the improvement swiftly which was kicked off one Monday morning. All employees in the sales department were told about the improvement during the morning meeting (1/2 hour), where the sales manager in general terms announced that the company was now improving the sales process and gave a brief description of how things would be in the future. When I then came back a month later, the proposed improvement was not visible in the sales activities and processes. I confronted the Sales Manager with this during a coffee break, and he said that he had told everyone about the change, and it seemed like they had understood what they needed to do. He thought the new processes worked better know. When pressed for the proof of this, he admitted that they had not really monitored the offer time, nor the resources usage per offer after the project ended, but had observed that they did not get as many complaints from customers about missing offers as before. What I saw was that the order and structure that the improvement project had created for a significant improvement in effectiveness and efficiency, has slipped back, and only a little of the value created initially was now being harvested. We call this the executional performance gap (see graph below).  The big issue now was why had things gone backwards and slipped slowly but surely back towards how things were before the improvement.

My experience is not unique. Many colleagues of mine from within the consulting business, both in our own company and in other companies such as McKinsey, CSC, and Accenture, have many of the same stories to tell. When meeting up to tell “war stories” this is a common theme for us. And we have all in our own way tried different tricks and procedures for how to make change stick. What is perhaps more interesting, different of my friends, who are CEOs in companies from different industries, also have this insights and have a slightly different set of tricks for how they have tried to secure that improvement based change becomes permanent.


[1] Executional Performance Gap illustrate the problem with sustaining improvements after the improvement have been initially developed as part of an improvement project, where employee knowledge and motivation to change decrease after the project is finished and therefore impact the adoption and continuous use of the improvement principles and tools.

So based on this pool of practical experience, we do have some ideas about why “shit happens” and also how we can make sure that improvements for the better stick and are not lost in space.

1. Someone is directly responsibility

The first thing a company does to make change stick is often to make someone on the operational side responsible for the improvement, in order to anchor the focus with someone, who can maintain focus on the improvement. For process improvements, a process responsible is decided, and it will then be this person’s responsibility to secure compliance with the revised process activities. If and when the person has tangible and dynamic measurements of a process effectiveness, efficiency and speed, then it is quite simple to follow progress and identify when problems arise. However, the corrective action necessary is still most often to conduct conversations with the people involved to reiterate the working principles of the improvement.

2. Proper description (Standard Operating procedure and policy)

Another important element is a relevant and specific standard operating procedure, policy and work description, which outline what and how specifically to do a specific job. A general description of what is to be done, often give rise to un-security and questions when it comes to practical execution, which brings about hesitation and the inability to act in line with the intentions. Not all employees are equally good at interpreting intentions and goals, finding tools and defining the necessary activities by themselves. With a proper practical description of how to do it, there is minimal hesitation in the proper execution of revised processes.

3. Motivation through participation

Proven multiple times by research, it is well known that many people have the “not invented here” syndrome. When someone else has an opinion about how I ought to do my job, chances are that I think that they must be off their rockers. Or at least have opinions as to why the suggestions are interesting but not something that we can or should do. So even if the suggested change has merit or not, there is an inherent resistance to the proposal.  Call it lack of motivation, or lack of knowledge/understanding, or inertia, or resistance to change. Same “shit” different words. In societies with higher respect for authorities, it is easier to implement change since these organizations are having a culture governed by orders, where employees implement the decisions without questioning them. In organizations with lower respect for authorities and with higher level of critical thinking, the inertia seems to be worse. So some organizations realize that the best way to reach the heart and minds of the people responsible for changing their behavior is to involve them directly in the process of identification of problems and design of solutions. Which means that the group approach to problem identification and solution design tends to be very importance for positive motivation and the ability to change behavior?

4. Heart and mind Communication Plan

In order to engage and recruit others to change behavior a short meeting with a general description of what needs to happen is not enough to secure compliance with the decisions made. This is why a proper communication plan is necessary to make people understand how, why, when, what etc. The management problem with communication is not that executives do not communicate, but more than they do not always communicate enough, to all relevant people, in a proper form, with the appropriate content. There are 3 classical differences between the problematic and the most successful communication efforts. When communication works well the communication is planned and outlined in a communication plan, based on communication with and not to the people, and includes practical information which is directly relevant to the daily activities in the company. The first and most important insight is therefore that the communication is a well-planned activity. Secondly, the communication to the employees about “why” improvements are necessary and “what” should be done is not enough, but it has to be supplemented with communication with the employees to make them understand and on an individual level accept the reason why and their role in the initiative. This includes Q&A sessions, discussion meetings in larger or smaller groups, use of “burning platform” principles etc. Finally, the communication must include information which is directly relevant for the practical work and activities in the company, who does what, when and where, using what tools, with what tangible and measurable results.

5. Competence development (Training)

In many companies, there are some very motivated employees and managers who are engaged in the operation and development of the company. However, these key people do not always have direct experience with or formal training in the type of changed needed. For instance, in the food company mentioned above, the VP of Sales was an autodidact (self-taught) manager, who had been a junior sales person within the company, but have grown experienced in sales and showed both good commitment and good sales results, so after 8 years with the company he was promoted to VP of Sales. However, he had not taken part of any formal Leadership training programs, and so has not received any training in motivational communication, persuasive communication, change management, or Program Management. And as he was not born with exceptional communication skills, he could not be expected to lead well the change process. In this case, it would have been relevant to either develop his communication skills through a training/competence development program, or to provide communication support in order to help him get through to the employees in an effective way. So, best practice companies invest in the development of communication and leadership skills for their key executives, just as they invest in the development of the functional skills needed by the employees to effectively work with the needed improvement projects. How can an organization expect an employee to lead a Lean Six Sigma project without the person has the skills of a Green Belt?