Project Management - How to make improvements stick

What happens after the project ends? 

By Nils Randrup

Many companies slide back to the old way of doing things when an improvement project ends, after the improvement has been identified, developed and supposedly 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. Their CEO had identified the need for significant improvements in the offer handling and sales processes, since there were huge problems with on-time delivery of offers, hit-rate and waste of resources. A project group was 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, leading to shorter lead-time, higher hit rates and without as much waste of 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 and the revised lead-to-order sales process. 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. He gave a brief description of how things would be in the future.

When I came back a month later, the proposed improvement was not visible in the sales activities and processes any longer. 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 now. 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 the improvement project had created as well as the significant improvement in effectiveness and efficiency, has slipped back almost to the way things were, and only a little of the value created initially was now being harvested.

We call this dilemma “The Executional Performance Gap” (see graph below).  When the CEO got involved, he was not surprisingly disappointed. The big issue now was to find out why things had 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 smaller outfits like Magnificent and ROI Consulting and larger outfits like 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 tips, 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 the same insights and have a slightly different set of tricks for how they have tried to secure that improvement based change becomes permanent. 

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