Faith and pain, part two

In an earlier post I wrote about the pain that is often associated with changing the way we behave, the prerequisite for all improvement. I use the word “pain” here to mean all negative feelings that may be associated with the change such as uncertainty, lack of self-confidence, doubt, and fatigue. I also wrote about the faith we must have in the improvement effort (or any effort really) to keep going even if we don’t see or feel any immediate results. As I hinted earlier, I’ve seen many improvement efforts fail because of too much pain and because of lost faith.

Failure of improvement programs

Most of the failed efforts I have seen have been corporate-wide and large, with many people involved in an “improvement program”. They are often slow to start since many people need to be involved and got on-board. Funds must be requested and budgeted. There is a massive amount of planning of a large number of “tangled” activities and long discussions about goals and milestones. Soon enough, managers and other key persons start to feel that they can’t spend the time needed for the massive improvement program because of urgent operational responsibilities. There is simply a lot of talk, and very little action. Faith starts to fade. And should a big change actually be likely to come out of the program, then there will be pain, sometimes too much of it. (There is a third alternative, namely that the large improvement program only produces a few, small changes. Then chances are that the large improvement program is very inefficient and could be replaced by a smaller, more efficient one.)

Jan Brink on Briar, world’s #1 dressage stallion, in one of Briar’s last public appearances in Falsterbo, 2009. When training a horse, there are no quantum leaps, only small incremental improvements reinforced during countless hours of training. I can testify that the human rider is no different from a horse in that respect.

Improve in increments

The rather obvious antidote for both “change pain” and lost faith is to improve in small, independent increments. After all, if you can’t manage a small improvement, then you can’t manage a large improvement so it’s always a good way to start.

Small changes don’t hurt as much as large ones. Small, frequent improvements also keep the faith strong since you see results on a regular basis. They produce the “early wins” that Kotter writes about in [1]. You also learn stuff from each small iteration that you can apply in subsequent iterations. And if you fail, the failure will not be of epic proportions and you can most likely recover from it in the next increment.

I sometime hear that everything depends on everything else and that everything therefore must be changed at the same time. Or that the market situation demands a “quantum leap” in performance. (People forget that a “quantum leap” is in fact the smallest possible increment.) Usually it is possible to find reasonably independent improvement areas though, suitable for incremental improvements. There is an interesting and inspiring parallel in the software development community called Scrum [2]. It is an incremental project management process in which software is developed incrementally in “sprints” of one month.

Integrate improvement

I believe that improvement should be part of the regular operations of the organization rather than done in “improvement programs”. If it is integrated in the daily operations and the corporate culture, then it will almost invariably be performed in small increments and be based on real operational needs and business goals. These factors increase the chances for success considerably. If improvement isn’t a natural part of the daily operations, then it is probably better to fix that instead of kicking off an extraordinary improvement program. If there hasn’t been any, or enough (continuous) improvement for a long time, then a big “bold stroke” change might be necessary as a last resort. More on that later.


[1] John P. Kotter. Leading Change.
[2] Craig Larman. Agile & Iterative Development.

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