Dale Carnegie was once quoted as saying: “Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.” So let’s first understand what contributes most to failure, as a means of making the right choices when striving for operational improvement. 


Failures in Implementation

Why do we hear so many conflicting stories about how good or bad a particular improvement philosophy actually is? Whether it is Six Sigma, Lean Sigma, Lean or Manufacturing Excellence? Simple. Success is driven not only by the philosophy and tools you choose, but also by how you implement them. It is important to embrace the right approach for the pressing issues of the business—and even more important to implement the changes well. Here we will focus on the implementation phase.

There are many tough choices during implementation that have to be taken, and the twin factors of engagement and involvement are critical. Overplay it and decision-making is slow and cumbersome; underplay it and you don’t have the necessary buy-in to ensure implementation success. The buy-in that we all know is essential across a wide array of functions and disciplines required to make the lasting organizational improvements everybody is looking for.

So where do implementation failures occur most frequently and what can we do to ensure they don’t occur next time around? There is, of course, no one simple answer and, no silver bullet to resolve this. There have been various research reports on the topic; one of the most recent published by The Wall Street Journal online that explains that without the "twin fires" of senior-level involvement and sustained engagement, results decline over timei. No great surprises there then!

From the various experiences and projects that the Kepner-Tregoe (KT) team have had over the years, we can clearly identify the failures that businesses have had at three levels of interaction and communication. It is through these interactions that things get missed, forgotten, overlooked, ignored, are not aligned correctly—or are just completely misunderstood. Any of these will mean implementation falters.

These opportunities for interaction and communication failure occur at three levels and can manifest themselves in many different ways. Here are a few examples:


  • What does each of us understand about the strategy and the different people in the different functions?
  • What roles do they play?
  • Who are the power players and influencers?
  • Which processes and systems are our strength and priority?
  • What is the best way to work within the culture that exists?
  • How do we get things done around here?
  • What are the rules by which the company is governed?
  • What are the approval protocols?


  • How do you best interact with the team?
  • Which teams is the company made up of and how do they work?
  • More importantly, how do they make decisions?
  • How do they tackle complex problems? How do they mitigate risks for the teams and business? Who has to be involved and committed to the decisions of the team for success? And for how long?


  • (One-to-One: Manager/Leader to Associate/Individual or Peer to Peer)
  • How clear are the expectations?
  • Have they been agreed as achievable?
  • What is our overall performance environment?
  • What influences it and how do we influence others?
  • How do people deliver, receive, and react to critical feedback?

There are many questions here with the potential for confusing, inconsistent or contradictory answers, depending upon who you talk to within the organization. However, if we know and understand that these are the issues, why do we not do something about them? Here are some of the most cited reasons we’ve been exposed to from our project interactions over the years:

  • Not enough internal time to devote to the right activities.
  • Not enough engagement with appropriate stakeholders.
  • Not enough budget (irrespective of ROI) to bring in the necessary skills or capacity to get the job done.
  • Other short-term priorities take precedence.
  • The job procedures, workflows, and priorities are not aligned with the new goals.

Irrespective of responsibilities, budget, money, and time; our experience leads to the following simple implementation model. This needs to be adhered to in order for the success of any transformational improvement campaign to be maximized. In our book this effectively acts as a checklist of activities to ensure they are all understood and acted upon.


A Simple Implementation Model

Our consultancy and training experience in Europe and worldwide has shaped our belief that there are five rules to follow. We have synthesized these to define the critical implementation success factors for an improvement program. This model is represented below and captures the key elements of work that underpin the success of a human capital-led improvement program. We’ve taken an example with a focus on troubleshooting improvement, yet we use the principles across all human capital-led improvement programs.



There is, however, an assumption which sits behind this: that we already have the right people who are going to both lead this transformation and support the implementation. That is not to say they have everything they need just yet. Just that they have the behaviors, attitudes, skills, and knowledge that are required for the task at hand.

To understand how prepared an organization and its leaders are, our business has established a series of questions to conduct an initial assessment of Organizational Readiness for Implementation in each of these five areas.

“In an ideal world I’m not sure we would be starting here!”


Rule 1: Acknowledge the Journey—Set Your Target

We all get it, I’m quite sure. We have to know where we are heading in order to get on the right road. So where do you start? We have to first define some elements of the end game. You have to start with a timeframe. If we don’t set the targets, we could be going on forever just attempting to get started. Identifying the right Key Performance Indicators and having people understand and agree on them is essential.

Self-Assessment Questions Qualifying Questions
1. Does a timeframe to achieve your ambition exist?  If yes, how long have you got?
2. Do KPIs exist for the improvement areas you are targeting?  If yes, what are they?
3. Is the relative importance of your KPIs clear and distinct?  If yes, which are the most important and why?
4. Do all the stakeholders agree the KPIs are achievable? If yes, to what extent are they all agreed?


“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

—Henry Ford

Rule 2: Understand the Capability Gaps—Prioritize Your Needs

To do things differently, to make new things happen, quite often requires the application of different or new skills. People may already have these skills but have just not yet tapped into them. Understanding what skills are required, what skills you’ve got, and deducing from this the skills gap you have, is essential to deploying people effectively to instigate improvements.

It is quite often so very easy at a human level to misunderstand the required change in people. There are different levels of seniority, capabilities and emotions which require the development of different capability development needs—one size does not fit all. Having common ways of working involves everyone understanding the roles each of us plays. We have to develop technical knowledge and expertise, as well as ensuring how we work together, is effective and efficient. Quite often the training carried out can be standard, but the coaching support provided is unique.

Self-Assessment Questions Qualifying Questions
5. Do you know what skills you currently have? If yes, what are the ones you have?
6. Do you know what new skills you need? If yes, what are they?
7. Do you know what it will take to close the skills gap? If yes, which are the most important and why?
8. Is everyone agreed on how this skills gap should be closed? If yes, to what extent are they all agreed?


Rule 3: Integrate the Solutions—Make Your Processes Deliver Value

Colin Boughton, Operations Director from FujiFilm Speciality Ink Systems, understands what before and after look like. “Our previous formulations were on an A4 page and said things like ‘add ingredients slowly by stirring’,” reflects Boughton. “The description is more like a novel now. It lists the amount of material to use, the RPM for stirring and the number of seconds after which you should turn the stirrer off.ii

To do things differently, to make new things happen, quite often requires focus on those processes that add the most value and integrate the thinking around the solution—removing both variation and waste. It is quite clear that processes should add value. There is, however, heavy reliance on so many other inputs to ensure success. Processes need to be well-definedwith clear stepshave defined responsibilities, and be executed to the agreed standards. Then managed for accountability and continued improvement within that supporting performance environment.


Self-Assessment Questions Qualifying Questions
  9. Do you know which process adds most value to your KPIs? If yes, which is it and why?
10. Are your new or improved processes clearly defined and understood? If yes, what evidence do you have?
11. Are your new or improved processes well executed? If yes, how do you know they are being used effectively?
12. Are your new or improved processes well managed? If yes, how do you know they are managed effectively?


Rule 4: Align the Expectations—Lead by Example

William Egenton, Managing Director of Dromone Engineering (www.dromone.com), comments, “Ensuring there is value built in from an integrated end-to-end process view is essential for any transformational improvement program. There are always many things to do but integrating our approach and prioritizing the work gives us much more clarity on where to get the best return.”

Getting the expectations and the measures aligned from the board room to the shop floor ensures people share in the pain and the reward. With this achieved, role modelling behavior becomes so much more meaningful. The aim of making every day our very best day can then mean everyone gets involvedsupporting one another to get things done.

Self-Assessment Questions Qualifying Questions
13. Do senior personnel know what is expected of people—in terms of behavior, attitudes, skills, and knowledge? If yes, how do they define changes in each?
14. Are business leaders readily able to engage and interact with people to provide them with feedback? If yes, how do they do it?
15. Do business leaders role model for their people to follow? If yes, how effective is this role modelling?
16. Is everyone agreed on how business leaders should engage with their people moving forward? If yes, to what extent are they all agreed?


Rule 5: Never Rest—Coach for Exceptionally High Performance

The external environment is unforgiving. There are new players entering the market. New regulations to comply with and constant technological advances that exceed most people’s imaginations. The mantra of continuous improvement has been with us for years, however getting the final ounces of improvement requires dedication and focus. Ensuring that there is an independent eye, a critical challenging observer, is essential to ongoing development.

Self-Assessment Questions Qualifying Questions
17. Are the mechanisms in place to observe the key behaviors that underpin the successes required? If yes, what mechanisms are there and how do you know they are there?
18. Do people have the opportunity to reflect on what has been observed before going into action? If yes, how does this opportunity to reflect manifest itself?
19. Are people given appropriate coaching—internally and externally? Is it timely, pinpointed, and relevant? If yes, how timely, pinpointed, and relevant are the coaching opportunities?
20. Are action plans established to act on coaching advice?   If yes, how well are these followed through? What evidence of ongoing improvement is sought?


“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

—Winston Churchill 


The five rules of the implementation model that have been outlined above have to be at the heart of any human capital transformational improvement plan. The transformational journey that is the successful achievement of your improvement goals doesn’t succeed or fail in the lecture room, the project room, or the operations room, but in the board room. The executive leadership sets the tone and the priorities—and creates the heartbeat of the business. For transformational change where people are at the heart, we all look to our role models; role models who we respect, trust, and can relate to.

The Transformational People Plan

So in addressing the failures outlined previously—and to maximize our probability of implementation success, we need to address the engagement and involvement failures of people, teams, and the organization in the context of the implementation model. We also need to look for the role models who make those things happen.

A Good Individual Job

Everyone comes to work to do a good job.

There are, of course, those who need more time and energy spent on them than others to get the most out of them. Yet few come to work thinking, “I am deliberately going to under perform today.” When it comes to interaction and communication, the failure to execute well at an individual level, will be down to the performance environment that surrounds an individual. In particular:

  • Expectations not matched or aligned in their situation;
  • Inability to be clear and precise;
  • No feedback; and
  • Out-of-balance consequences.

Exceptional people excel because they create their own performance environment. They don’t wait for others. If the expectations are unclear they clarify them, if they have not received any feedback they go and source it, if they don’t have all the resources they need they go and find them. Excellent performers not only deliver on their promises, they know how to remove the barriers that might get in the way. Knowing the performance system and its strengths and weaknesses in relation to your own and others’ behaviors will give you the edge.


William Egenton continues: “It has added tremendous value to the Dromone team to get external support, but it is also important that there is the mutual respect at all levels so that the role modelling, coaching, and feedback can all be acted upon without any negative connotations.”

For every individual contributor we have to ensure they are set up to make the five rules of the implementation model meaningful, relevant, and above all, tangible.


An Effective Team Result

When transformation is required, it means involvement from across all functions and departments and at the right pace. Too much engagement and things move too slowly, too little consideration and stakeholders won’t have fully "bought in" and won’t be ready for implementation.

So many of the decisions have to be team-based. Not necessarily formal teams, but ad hoc teams quite often playing by different rules with different characters and different styles. In truth, not everyone needs to be involved in every situation. There are, however, two key variables which determine the level of involvement and engagement:

  • Does it make a big difference which course of action is adopted?
  • Is commitment of others critical to effective implementation?

These two questions heavily influence the involvement style that should be adopted. If the answer to both is no, don’t waste time: make the decision and move quickly. If the answer to both is yes, then it is not so straightforward. It is critical to understand the difference between a consensual and a consultative style.

The simple involvement model illustrated here identifies five different involvement styles. Only the last style is truly consensual. The underlying influence that "involvement style" plays on the implementation model’s five rules is difficult to quantify, however the alignment of expectations and prioritization of capability development are key.


An Organization Transformed

Alan Brache describes an organization in a holistic illustration he calls "The Enterprise Model". He likens an enterprise to mechanical systems, in that all the moving parts have to interact in a predefined harmonious fashioniii. They are dependent upon one another for success. And so it is to implement human capital-focused transformational change. A new organization structure or a redefined role, a new system or the definition of a business process alone, won’t bring about the transformation some organizations need.

The principle is simple. It is the business process that adds value to the organization. Therefore to address our reasons for failure of transformational change, the understanding of what supports our business processes is essential.

The decisions we make in our teams and the things we do as individuals all have to be aligned and work in synchronization. Ignore one element at your peril, as it is this element that allows the doubt and uncertainty to creep in.

The focus on business process and aligned metrics both in running a business and through the implementation model only goes to further illustrate the difficulties so many managers and leaders have in both running their business and changing their business simultaneously.


Conclusion: Critical Implementation Success Factors

It is of course all about people. Jim Collins wrote: “Get the right people on the bus, sit them in the right seats and then figure out where to take itiv.” Without the right people with the right skills in the right place, implementation becomes virtually impossible. So returning to our original question: Is it simply that improvement initiatives fail because we don’t have the right people?

Individuals can’t do it on their own. There needs to be flawless interaction with peers, within teams, and across an aligned and purposeful organization. Of course we need to develop our people to transform the organization, but in developing those people we must ensure we know:

  • What the skills are targeted to achieve;
  • The business processes are aligned;
  • The business culture, leadership, and performance environment are aligned; and
  • There is coaching support, facilitation, and guidance every step of the way.

After all, the very best in the business of sport need their coaches, why not the very best in the business of business? In one pharmaceutical company with which we work, the stigma has been lifted. The coach whose existence was once denied is now introduced by their executive to colleagues in a lift; a badge of honor, a sign that investment and support for the very best can only make them better.

We will finish with a two-line tale and don’t get us wrong—some of our best business colleagues are CFOs:

  • CFO to CEO: “What if we develop our people and they leave?”
  • CEO responds: “What if we don’t develop our people and they stay?”

We need therefore to recruit, acquire, or create our heroes of change. If they don’t already exist, the team needs supplementing. But at the end of the program we need those talented people to have delivered their all and be ready for the next challenge for which they are now much better equipped.


i Where Process-Improvement Projects Go Wrong, Satya S. Chakravorty, The Wall Street Journal online,
June 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703298004574457471313938130.html.
ii FujiFilm Speciality Ink Systems, Best Factory Awards, Winner: Best Process Plant 2011.
iii How Organizations Work: Taking a Holistic Approach to Enterprise Health, Alan P. Brache, Wiley, 2002.
iv From Good to Great, Jim Collins, Random House, 2007.