"I Am Not A Number" - Why Too Many Change Projects Fail

Glen Feechan

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Many of you will recognise this quote from the 1960s TV show, “The Prisoner”. Patrick McGoohan used the phrase to describe his frustration at not being treated as an individual, and being kept in the dark about what his superiors were up to in a very confusing environment. This experience is not dissimilar to what employees face in most change projects.

A cog in the machine

Traditional approaches to business change and process improvement have at their heart, the idea that a business is, essentially, a machine that can be engineered to be efficient. In fact the term “Business Process Re-engineering” (BPR) makes this assumption quite explicit.

This “mechanical” approach to change can leave employees feeling alienated and devalued (much like Patrick McGoohan).

As these traditional approaches have developed, more emphasis has been placed on the “human” aspects. It is acknowledged that a change programme cannot work without “employee buy-in”. The issue is usually tackled by running numerous workshops where consultants try to make the employees feel part of the exercise, while continuing to apply the same old techniques to the business processes themselves.

From the employee’s point of view, an external consultant has interviewed him for thirty minutes to understand the job that he has been doing for thirty years, gone away and come back with a new way of doing it. This comes across as patronising at best. The consultant then rubs salt into the wounds by running workshops to try to win the employee over so that he does not obstruct the changes!

In this environment, addressing the “people issues” is all about ensuring that the level of disillusionment is not so great that the change project fails.

Processes vs People

These problems are created because the underlying approach to the business processes is still to treat the organisation as a machine that needs to be “re-engineered”. The problems created by this approach are then treated as “people issues”.

Processes and people cannot be separated like this. Even in this age of technology, the vast majority of business processes are carried out by people - usually informally.

It is what employees do on a day-to-day basis that makes a business work. A large percentage of the processes are not documented and are so complex that it would be almost impossible to do so. Procedures manuals are a very conceptualised view of business processes - if they could capture everything, no-one would pay for experience.

Once you acknowledge this, it becomes quite clear why most change projects are unsuccessful. A business process is not an inanimate object that can be “re-engineered” but a collection of human behaviours. The only people capable of changing the business processes are those carrying them out.

Process Improvement for Strategic Objectives (PISO®)

PISO®, developed at the University of Sunderland, is a unique approach to business process improvement that provides a structured step-by-step approach for the employees themselves to re-design their own processes.

At Feechan Consulting Ltd, we work with organisations large and small throughout the UK, from public sector bodies such as the BBC and North Tyneside Council to private sector companies across all sectors.

Many of our clients learn the technique on one of our training courses and then apply it themselves, whereas others require our facilitation. Either way, it is the employees that carry out the processes that redesign them, removing the separation of people and processes and significantly improving the success of any change.

Glen Feechan is Chief Executive of Feechan Consulting Ltd (http://www.feechan.co.uk ), a business consultancy specialising in business process improvement training and consultancy. Email Glen at glen@feechan.co.uk .

Glen is also the editor (and regular contributor) of Changing Business ezine (sign up at http://www.feechan.co.uk ).


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