Change vs Improvement

“Change isn’t necessarily an improvement you know” was the statement proclaimed during a discussion around implementing business improvements. The immediate unfiltered response was, “EVERYONE knows change and improvement are different.”

But do we really recognise the difference? And if we do, how do we put our knowledge into practice? What exactly is change and what is improvement in the work environment?

Improvement is easy to define. It is an adjustment that increases efficiency, effectiveness or quality. It provides a tangible benefit in a saving of time, money, space, effort or resources.

Defining change is slightly more complex. Change is the practical physical and behavioural adjustment required to accept and implement new practices or ideas. The change may not lead to a tangible benefit.

Working Together

Change and improvement work hand in hand. Improvement will always include some change. This could be practical change (e.g. we scan and email an invoice instead of faxing it) or changes in the way we think (e.g. computers are fun to use). When putting an improvement in place, we need to recognise the level of change required to achieve the improvement and avoid frustration. Often we only focus on the physical change that needs to take place, and neglect the inward behavioural change we also need to facilitate.

Take the new phone system for example. It’s an improvement in multiple ways; sophisticated answering service, easy extension of phones for new staff, linked into the office when working from home and more. However to achieve the benefits of the improvement we not only have to physically acquire the new phones, we have to change our behaviour.

The new system requires us to learn new ways of answering the phone and transferring calls, establish the practice of setting our call forwarding, set up conference calls, etc. If each person does not achieve this behavioural change, then our “improvement” will actually have taken us backwards. There will be people unwilling to answer the phone at all because they’re not comfortable resulting in calls being missed because we haven’t got things sorted. A high level of support is required to ensure each individual can accomplish this.

Get on Board

We now understand that improvement needs to include physical and behavioural change, and that without the behavioural change, results can be negative. In almost every workplace there are established practices of not thinking things through and a lack of planning that has seen years of people making poor decisions when implementing an improvement and therefore created a stigma around change. That means even though you know your improvement is definitely a change for the better it can be perceived as a bad idea by your team.

So how do we persuade others your improvement is a good thing and it is worth their effort to make the necessary change? The first step is making people aware there is a problem. Frequently the whole team will not be aware. You may have a “fixer” in the team who is covering up the inefficiency for everyone else.

Then facilitate involvement for everyone in the decision making and planning process. This may simply mean you share information about progress with all, but only one or two key people have input. Make people aware of the personal benefits to them, not just the benefit to the company. The benefit of the improvement is the reward for putting in the effort to make the change (and people like physical rewards too!).

When implementing the new phone system our staff was aware of the issues with the incumbent system and key users were involved in deciding what system would work best for the future. The benefits of the new system were communicated to everyone, so the improvement was seen as a step forward for the organisation and something that will also assist in personal productivity and flexibility.

Smooth Sailing

Now we understand that improvement requires change and change requires involvement from people, we are ready to implement the improvement. So how do we go about this? You need to able to ease the change and allow adoption of behaviour transformation for a positive outcome for all?

Introduce the improvement in chunks where possible. Don’t expect total transformation in a single stroke. For example, you have a new and improved form which is to be incorporated in a new completely electronic process. This can be introduced in two chunks: the new form (different content) and completing electronically (different method).

To ease the change, introduce the new questions on hardcopy first then lead people to complete online as a second stage. This way you are introducing one smaller change at a time and sorting out the issues (that will still occur) with step one, before introducing the greater change of step two. It also provides people with time to adapt, which is necessary for many people.

Land Ahoy

We have arrived at our destination – the improvement has been implemented, everyone seems settled and I haven’t heard many complaints. Sounds like a success! Don’t assume; measure your success in implementing change and improvement.

If we go back to our phone example, to measure the success we could send around survey to staff and customers to find out what benefits they have experienced. We could calculate the amount of calls we are able to transfer to other staff working remotely (which previously we could not do).

However you choose to measure, the important thing is that you do. How else can you tell if it was an improvement? How else do you know what you could do better in the future? When you have reached your ‘destination’ make sure you scout around and ensure it was the best improvement you could have made.

“Change isn’t necessarily an improvement you know”. Yes, we do know. And we also know that improvement does require change and how to best facilitate that change. Change and improvements are not the same. By recognising this and getting them working together you’ll be providing a great resource to the company and a team that feels empowered, valuable and has an increased trust in you and each other.


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