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Let’s see, the data is accurate and complete, there’s an obvious business case, and this change will make everyone’s job so much easier. There will be absolutely no resistance to change, right? Wrong! Resistance to change should always be expected in some form or another. Even when it seems that a person is undoubtedly on-board, you ask them exactly what they’re on-board with and they have no idea what they just signed up for. Its safer to assume that there will be some degree of resistance to change in Continuous Improvement; the only question is how you can help people overcome this natural reaction.

Don’t get me wrong, if I told my kids they will never need to eat broccoli again and instead its ice cream for dinner every night, they would welcome this change with blissful enthusiasm. However, if I told them they needed to do double the amount of homework every night – because it would make them more competitive in the global economy, of course – they would kick, scream, and moan; then maybe, just maybe get used to it after quite some time. When you look at these two examples in context, therein lies the real reason for resistance to change. Resistance is a natural response mechanism for preventing the loss of power, control, or freedom. For my kids, having more ice cream and less homework is their perception of freedom. Given more power, these are the kinds of things they would do with it. The alternative (ie. more homework and broccoli) is a loss of freedom in their eyes; so they resist – even if its completely rational and for their own good.

Now consider the manufacturing team who needs to engage in Continuous Improvement. Improving requires change – and probably some changes of some deeply ingrained behaviors. Even though its the right thing to do and serves everyone’s better interests, there will be resistance.

Here are 5 steps for overcoming resistance to change in Continuous Improvement:

Step 1) Clearly communicate the need for change and establish the desired future state

Build a solid business case for change using data, facts, statistics, case studies and other supporting information to make it clear that the current state is unsustainable, unacceptable, or even flat out dangerous (if applicable). If there is a burning platform, here is where it needs to be put front and center. As the saying goes, people change when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing. Although this is not always true, at least its fair to communicate early that change is coming and give them a chance to start processing the situation. This is simply a matter of respect for your people. In the best case scenario, they will internalize and embrace the situation for the new opportunities that it presents. In the worse case, they won’t quite get out of the pit of despair on their own and will need some help.

Step 2) Empower the people whose behavior will need to change

Remember, resistance is a reflex to the feeling of a loss of power and control. A little empathy can go a long way here. After people have had a chance to accept that change is coming, the next move is to empower them to take the lead on the change so that they feel in control of the situation. Provide them with the constraints that they need to work within and enable them to develop solutions and terms that they would be happy with. This way they feel more powerful and can possibly ensure that their most important needs will continue to be met.

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Step 3) Align on a winning solution or approach

Have them propose their solution to the problem to ensure that it addresses the intended business needs. Provide facilitation support if needed if there are multiple interests involved. Engage others who are impacted by the change to see if the idea can be modified in a way that creates more value and produces more benefits. In this way, the change can be leveraged as an opportunity for organizational growth and development.

Step 4) Mitigate risks associated with the solution

Deploy a cross-functional team of subject matter experts (SME’s) to assess the risks, likelihood of occurrence, and severity if the risks were to occur. Then develop a plan to eliminate or mitigate the risks to acceptable levels. After risks have been mitigated, engage key stakeholders to validate that everyone is comfortable proceeding with the change. This process strengthens communication to all affected and gives time to effectively process the change, both psychologically and functionally.

Step 5) Establish and maintain accountability for results

During and after the execution of the change, continue to monitor and communicate progress. Making results, good or bad, highly visible only increases the likelihood of successful execution and sustainment. Empowering those who are impacted to developed the solution reduces the resistance to change because people are naturally more emotionally attached to their own ideas. That increased ownership is an invaluable asset.

Its common to feel like resistance to change in Continuous Improvement is a result of people not understanding why the change is needed. We usually meet resistance with more data, explanation, and in some unfortunate cases, coercion. However, resistance is a natural response, often the result of people feeling that the change will result in a personal loss of power, control, or freedom. You can overcome this resistance effectively by giving them a greater sense of empowerment. This is done by engaging them in the development of the solution, which also gives them a channel to address some of the other things they’d like to change. The result is clearer communication, a more effective solution, and greater ownership of results by the people whose lives are most significantly impacted.

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