Reducing Resistance to Improving Business Processes

Last updated by Ian James, Feb 12, 2019

Change is notoriously stressful. So stressful, it can cause your brilliant improvement to fail. The key to success lies in finding ways to reassure those who are threatened most by the change. Here are some simple steps to take to achieve this.

Man with folded arms and negative body language

By its very definition, improving business processes improvement asks people to change how they work with one another.

Change is always threatening. When we implement changes to business processes we don’t want the vested parties to block or slow its adoption. So, how can we avoid or minimize resistance to the changes that come from process improvement?

After observing and participating in many such efforts, I have learned that the key to success lies in finding ways to reassure those who are threatened most by the change. There are some simple steps to take to achieve this.

Involve those who are involved in the process

I have learned one lesson over and again: it’s crucial to let those who will be the most affected by change decide what those changes will be. By having control over what happens, people will move from being adversaries to advocates, and use their energy to accelerate rather act as a brake on process improvement. But this changes your role as a manager, from leading to coaching and mentoring. You can set it up to succeed but you have to let go and allow people to do it for themselves.

Explain why and why now

When there is a management driven effort to improve process in order to cut costs, improve quality or speed things up, the motivation of those actually using the process is limited. Often the secret of success with process change management is picking your moment. Nobody likes to make mistakes. There is a greater willingness to consider changes to process in the aftermath of a process failure, and thus much easier to to make a case for change. In fact, often you will find the team is ahead of you in having a sense of urgency about fixing things.

Use the ground rules to reassure

Even before a process improvement efforts begins, there is an opportunity to reassure those involved. At the outset, you can make the ground rules clear and lay out how process improvement is going to be conducted. Make it clear that there will be no riding roughshod over people’s views. But be clear there will have to be compromise. Few changes are all good. There is always some penalty. At first, it is natural for people to be cautious but you have to begin by signaling what you expect to happen. Provided you are consistent in your expectations as the project progresses, you will gradually win them over.

Make sure what you do fits the organizational culture

Within every organization, whether it is explicit or not, there are certain accepted patterns of behavior that you will see repeated over and again. For want of a better word, you can call it organizational culture. Any change to process that is going to be long lasting has to fit within the culture. It is no good expecting some radical change to endure if it runs against the grain of accepted behavior. So, suddenly deciding to that it is going OK to make decisions at a much lower level than before might make sense form a process point of view. But if it has always been that such decisions were made by more senior managers, then you have a potential problem. Now, you might be able to negotiate a means to do that. However, to try and ignore something that is a significant cultural change is culture is to invite failure.

Be respectful of the status quo

There is a temptation to want to sweep away an existing, particularly one that has proven troublesome and replace it with something much better. That’s the whole idea of process improvement. But beware, there is usually a reason behind why the existing process is set up the way it is. When you dig back far enough, you might be surprised to find that there is a something that was put into place after a previous process failure that you might in fact want to preserve.

More than anything else you need to be vigilant about any change that will take autonomy from any individual. People’s need for autonomy is well documented and they are very sensitive to anything, real or imagined that threatens it. You need to be willing to step in and act as a referee as inevitable conflicts emerge.

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