Process improvement

A Big Push or a Continuous Improvement Process?

Most leaders have faced this question before. Your organisation needs to change. Will you be building a sandcastle or a sustainable transformation? In this post, I will argue for why a continuous improvement process most often is better than a “big push.”

This post was originally published on Sept 18, 2011 and revised on Dec 4, 2018.

Being First, one of the leading change methodologies divides transformation efforts into three types: Developmental, Transitional and Transformational. Simply put, the first type is a continuous improvement process. The two others are for radical changes. Let’s call them “big push” methods. In theory, this means that if you know which type of change you require, then you can select the appropriate change strategy. So big change means a transformational strategy. The problem is just that the assumptions that big, transformational transformations rest most often are wrong. The success factor is simply not there. A lot of research shows that two out of three transformation efforts fail. The bigger the scope the more likely it that the transformation initiative will fail.

Let’s explore the assumptions behind a successful “Big Push strategy” (roughly translated from ProSci’s ADKAR model):


Every employee must be aware of the purpose and be able to relate it to their own jobs

Clearly, this is much harder to achieve the more roles, offices, functions, business processes, and KPIs that are involved. Most of the time, you end up with very large documents and countless business process diagrams that are distributed through a few emails to the organisation. This is then combined with a “one-size-fits-all” message from executives. Does this bring clarity and purpose for the individual employee? No, it does not. This assumption often is not there. A continuous improvement process would mean that everybody had a chance to get on board gradually.


People should desire the change

Most organisations only act decisively when they are being disrupted. This means that most often a Big Push is only likely to happen once the company is on a burning platform. No people like being pushed from a burning platform. If this happens then chances are that regular employees only will resent top management for not acting before it was too late. So, most often this assumption is also not there.


People should know how they must change their behaviours

Changing your business model or entering a new market requires new behaviours by most people in most functions. Knowing how hard it is to change even small things is it realistic to expect a big change in behaviours during the few months that a typical big push lasts? Hardly.

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”

As they say. Well, you can but it is hard and it takes effort. Again, this reality speaks in favour of a continuous improvement process.


People must be able to translate your new work instructions to their daily work

Even if people know what to do differently and they really want to, they still must be able to apply the new way of working in their daily work. Studies have shown that only 8-12 people out of every 100 attending formal training programs put ANYTHING new into practice. So, the only way to transfer new skills effectively is to use methods that closely relate to people’s everyday work setting. This implies a continuous improvement process such as apprenticeship style learning. The trouble is that such methods take time to work. And they require experimentation and trial and error. Again, this favours a continuous improvement process, rather than a big push.


You need to reinforce the new behaviours to ensure a sustainable transition

Most Big Push change initiatives run as multiple projects within one or more large programs. The more activities that take place at the same time, the less attention managers can devote to each. In reality, this means that the same frontline staff has to talk with all the project managers. People become stressed, tired and cynical. The result is that once the Big Push stops so does the change. People then make a sigh of relief and go back to what they used to do. Again a success factor that is easier to achieve through a continuous improvement process.

👉 Recommendation: This informative page from Gluu beautifully contrasts the ‘Big Push’ approach versus ‘Continuous Improvement’ in a business setting. It provides detailed information and insights into both methodologies, effectively guiding business professionals, team leaders, and entrepreneurs in making decisions for their growth strategy. This article is advisable if you want to understand the merits and demerits of dramatic transformations or steady progress and determine the most fitting choice for your business. Dive into the last section to get an expert viewpoint on why ‘The Big Push’ should be your last resort.

The Big Push should be a last resort

When a successful Big Push effort rests on shaky assumptions then why do larger companies use it so often? I think there are at least three reasons:

  • Leaders only get started when it is (almost) too late.
  • A transformative approach allows for top-down control (like a military campaign). Most leaders love control.
  • A big push transformation is very visible and dramatic (and shows everyone that top management acts decisively).

The trouble is that leaders start off on a journey without knowing if their organization can handle the complexity, they then claim victory when the first signs of change show only to be replaced when results prove elusive in the longer term. A new senior manager starts and the whole process starts over again. Such organizations become very stressed and they start to resent change.

A continuous improvement process is the better way

What about the alternative continuous improvement process? Surely, this can’t replace the Big Push. To that, I would say that one of the sisters of the continuous improvement process is agile which is becoming very popular. People change through experimentation and learning and the more involved they are, the more motivated they will be.

”The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

William Faulkner

Inspiration for your own continuous improvement process plan

Want inspiration for your own continuous improvement process? Check out this 8-step process improvement plan that builds ownership.

Frequently Asked Questions

What specific steps should a company consider when implementing continuous improvement strategies into their business model?

When a company wants to incorporate continuous improvement strategies into their business model, they should carry out a few specific steps. Initially, they should determine their existing business processes and identify areas that need improvement. Understanding the current state of affairs helps in establishing a baseline for comparison later. Next, they should create a coherent and precise plan, stating the improvement goals and the strategies to achieve those goals. Employee training on these new strategies will also be essential. Lastly, the company should continually monitor and measure the effectiveness of the implemented strategies to ensure they’re delivering the expected outcomes. Any necessary adjustments should be made based on those outcomes.

What are some key challenges companies could face while transitioning from big push strategies to continuous improvement? How could these be mitigated?

Companies could face numerous challenges when shifting from big push strategies to continuous improvement. The most significant one could be resistance to change from employees. This could be mitigated by clearly communicating the benefits of this new strategy and offering comprehensive training programs to ease the transition. Another possible challenge could be the lack of an ongoing process for collecting and analyzing data on performance. Companies should set up systems to automatically monitor and measure their performance metrics to address this issue.

Can you provide any successful case studies of companies that have effectively implemented continuous improvement over big push strategies?

Various companies have successfully switched from big push strategies to continuous improvement strategies. One example is the automobile manufacturer, Toyota. They implemented the ‘Toyota Production System’ that mainly focuses on continuous incremental improvement.

Søren Pommer

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