Five elements of sustainable cultural change

Change dynamics, leadership, risk identification and management, communication, and project management all must be addressed.

By Shon E. Isenhour, CMRP

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In watching hundreds of people go through part — if not all — of the path to manufacturing excellence, I’ve determined the five elements that must be addressed to build profitable, sustainable change into your improvement project. These areas include the following:

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  • Change dynamics: knowing what to expect when those affected by the change move through the process
  • Leadership: knowing what to change and when to change your leadership style and your processes
  • Risk identification and management: understand what could go wrong and what you’re going to do about it proactively
  • Communication: understand what media to use, how to use them and at what frequency
  • Project management: know who is going to do which step and when during change implementation.

If you neglect any of these elements, the project might never get started, could underachieve results, or could become completely unsustainable leading to little if any business results.

Dynamics of change

The change process happens in stages, to both groups and individuals. The five stages are:

  • Stage I = Discovery: Don’t know what they don’t know
  • Stage II = Discomfort: Don’t like all this change
  • Stage III = Development: Don’t know if we will ever get there
  • Stage IV = Demonstration: Don’t want to go back to the old way
  • Stage V = Defend: Don’t want organization changes to derail the new way of doing business
Sustainability of your change
Each stage has characteristics and leadership needs that change as you progress. Many leaders miss this point and struggle when an individual’s needs change.
Let us look at Stage I — Discovery, where the participants hear about the changes for the first time and try to get a clear picture of what’s about to occur. There’s excitement brewing because this is something new, but there’s limited understanding of what it is. Think about the last time you were affected by the implementation of a new piece of software or a new tool. At first, what feelings did you have? Now, as we move through the stages, think about how you traveled through them with your change. Interestingly enough, in the beginning you’ll typically see a bump in system or process performance based on the Hawthorne effect. The Hawthorne effect states that as we focus attention on the system, it will perform at a higher level because of that attention. As a leader in this stage, you need to provide clear direction and encourage the enthusiasm that exists by providing as much information as possible. Ensure that you tell those who will be affected by the change about what’s in it for them and why the success of the change should be important.
As they move into Stage II, discomfort occurs. Some even call this stage the “valley of despair.” The affected people will begin to complain about the process and the changes. They’ll find reasons to miss meetings that pertain to the changes and will profess their love for the old way of doing business. This is by far the toughest stage but the most important from a leadership standpoint. The leader must support the change in decree and deed. I’ll talk about more of the requirements of this stage in the leadership section, but the key point to remember is that leaders must show focused support and unwavering direction.
As Stage III — Development progresses and the affected individuals begin to develop confidence, the results and the return on investment will begin to materialize. This is the stage in which the leader no longer needs to be as directive in style and can assume a role more like a coach. Key traits of this stage include individuals who no longer ask for solutions but instead ask to bounce ideas off of the change leaders. The leader will need to focus on highlighting the successes that have occurred and using them to keep building the confidence of the group.
In Stage IV — Demonstration, the group or individual reaches the level at which they can demonstrate the new way of doing business to others. They’re well on their way to becoming gurus because they no longer need anyone to tell them what to do or how to do it. They still need the change leaders to support them, but now it’s by giving them opportunities to shine. One key warning for leaders is not to overload these folks just because they can do it or they’ll burn out. This is a common problem at this stage.
In Stage V — Defend, the team is defending the change against both entropy and organizational changes. All organizations have some variability in the results they receive from improvement initiatives. This occurs naturally as leadership changes or production requirements fluctuate. In Figure 1, the Stage V good sustainable change is represented as a dampened sine wave (the green line). As the sine wave undulates, the process adherence varies and the return on investment also changes.
In a facility that hasn’t addressed each of the five elements of change, the process can look more like the red or blue lines. In each of these cases, the return on investment expected and shown as the shaded green area is taken away due to the organization’s ability to adhere to the new business processes that have been put into place. Leaders at this stage are less important if the change process has been well executed and ingrained into the new culture. However, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be involved at all. Leaders should be monitoring progress and sustainability through the use of metrics or balanced score cards while making sure new individuals in the organization get proper introduction to the new business processes. Continuous improvement efforts should be part of Stage V to offset any losses and keep a focus on sustainable change.
Each stage has its own unique issues and solutions. However, if you stay focused on your people and apply the correct leadership styles, you can help them move through the process in the most expedient manner while making the project results materialize more quickly.


Leadership is the single biggest reason many change initiatives fail to achieve the expected results. Leaders must understand the dynamics of change and ensure they’re meeting needs thoroughly. Communication is a key part of this process (and a later section), but we must first identify some of the specific traits a leader should display. There are many books dedicated to this subject alone that can help to solidify this portion of your change process, so we will just touch on two.

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