Have you ever been part of a transformation project that felt like going in circles?

Even when successful, transformation projects can still waste time.

Some years ago, 6R Retail worked on a large ERP implementation for a business with multiple brands. This was a large project that took 18 months for the base changes to be completed. It required significant changes in process, learning of new systems, different integrations, and training of the teams that were using the systems.

It was a massive effort.

Even when the initial implementation was complete, there were improvements that had surfaced through the project that the business wanted to implement (evidence that you’re never ‘done’ improving). It took years and a lot of focus and dedication from different functional parts of the business. Finally, we were in a place of completion on the programme of work. The new processes were being established, and people were working with them.

Then came a change in leadership in the organisation.

New strategic conversations and offsites were held. The business leaders came back with the really amazing insight that they wanted to undo significant parts of the changes that they had just finished making.


So, the question that occurs here is: Was the original project poorly advised, or was the ‘undoing’ project not needed?

Both and Neither

This business invested time and effort in making one set of changes only to revert to their original process, which they thought was broken. This is this constant pendulum of actions and reactions that are pretty much part of the cycle of the human condition, but it is also a disheartening experience for project teams to complete work only to turn around and complete different work that reverts to the previous effort. It feels a bit like you’re going around in a circle.

The original project was to implement a modern ERP; this strategy was sound. The legacy system was no longer serving the aspirations of the business, and the replacement system greatly improved the allocation of inventory and audit capability in the business.

The additional work they were undoing was to improve the way they were working with their new systems. Perhaps ‘not knowing’ or overoptimistic expectations about how they would be able to work with the new systems meant going back to some older processes to get better clarity for them.

So, although it seems like reversing our recent actions (which, admittedly, I found quite challenging at the time), the re-evaluation of our current situation and the readiness to acknowledge ‘we made a mistake here’ is an integral part of the continuous improvement process.

Interestingly enough, McKinsey has done some research with their clients (2022), and responses to that survey indicate that once the initial transformation effort has been achieved, holding onto and realising the benefits of the original project is the lofty goal achieved by only a small number three years on from the original efforts. Their survey shows that if your project achieved its transformation goals, one year later, only 44% felt they had been able to retain the benefits of that work. After three years, only 12% of respondents were able to sustain the productivity gains that they had made in their transformational change.

How to implement transformations for long-term impact

Source: McKinsey & Company

Given the kind of resources and energy that are put into large change programmes, 12% as a chance of retaining benefits after three years is probably not what most boards and executive leaders are looking for.

Why Do We Struggle?

So why do we struggle so much after three years to see a change embedded and really working in an organisation?

One key issue is that focus and attention are difficult to sustain. Humans seek both routine and novelty.

Significant change programmes require a lot of focus on the novel over a period. Once the ‘new’ moves into an operational function, it’s assumed that things are working. As humans, we tend to skim over what is the same day in and day out. It’s still worth baking into that business as usual, a time to reexamine and question.

Is the process still working for us?

Is the way we are working the most effective one?

Another contribution to change not sticking is the very mundane reality that people move on. We focus a lot on having the right combination of skills and will when implementing change programmes. What can happen is that once people have experienced the achievements of working on a tight team and delivering a change, they’re buoyed by that success and look for more. They look for a new challenge. If they can’t find a challenge in the organisation that they’re in, they will often look elsewhere, meaning that the momentum, agreement, and alignment around the change potentially diminishes with the exit of people who were committed to the original idea. It’s a bit like Chinese whispers. Every time you have to repeat or bring on board new people, the intention can be somewhat reinterpreted, and what you end up with at the end or with the last onboarding is nothing like the start. It is here that we often see project teams in their eagerness to complete and be done hand-over to an interim caretaker (or to no one). We know that we have completed all documentation and training materials and filed them nicely in a location where no one remembers to look!

Another contributing factor is our habits and how difficult it is to change them. Habits are developed over time. Making changes to our own behaviour is the first part of embedding new habits. Research shows that until the new behaviour is perceived as part of your personal identity, it doesn’t stick long-term. Once it becomes part of who you are, part of your routine, and something that you don’t even think about, it becomes easier to maintain and sustain. The same can be applied at a corporate or group level, where if we don’t properly consider the change as part of our new identity, then the change isn’t really embedded in the organisation.

How Can We Improve?

Between the completion of the project and the handover to operations, there is this grey and uncertain space. This is where we often falter: we disband a project team too early, we don’t provide the right training and handoff to an operational team, or we don’t involve the operational team in ongoing improvements and refinements because project delivery is really only the first phase of how we can improve.

Balancing project goals with the ongoing operational load is demanding. Creating more cross over between project and operational teams can make a big difference. Recruiting early in the project, with the intent that recruits for the project then stay on and own new parts of process or join existing teams is a successful tactic in establishing continuity between the initial project and ongoing operations. A couple of cautions here:

Ensure that the team members who are moving into operational roles are able to release some project responsibilities as part of this handover.

Be clear that the operational role has a period of project work, confirm expectations for both stages and revisit KPIs once the project part is completed.

Developing An Iterative Mindset

Here, we can borrow from the Japanese concept of kaizen. Kaizen is an iterative process, billed as an ongoing series of thoughtful adjustments. Accepting that we will have some failures and apply learnings from each round. Agile practice is founded on a similar idea. Consistent review and application of what is and isn’t working in retrospectives and post-implementation reviews.

It’s a much more iterative process, kaizen; it asks us to lift ourselves, to think differently, to challenge how we might improve our processes and our project delivery. TChi Oho, who is the creator of the Toyota production system, defined lots of different types of waste: waste of overproduction, waste of time on hand in transportation, processing stock, on-hand movement, and defective products. These were the original sort of manufacturing focus of waste.

If we also think about waste, we have described new wastes, untapped potential, excessive information, our time, inappropriate systems, wasting natural resources, and the waste of follow-through when resources and time are actually saved but then not put to good use. So all of these elements of waste are part of not honouring the gains achieved by a successful transformation project.

Coupled with an awareness of where we might be wasteful of our resources is a desire for excellence.

Onboarding With Value Alignment

Onboarding and training programs need to focus not just on teaching new skills but also on helping individuals internalise and align their behaviour with the desired values and culture of the organisation. By emphasising the importance of the new behaviour and providing ongoing support and reinforcement, we can increase the likelihood of successful habit formation and long-term behaviour change. Ultimately, this process of reinterpreting intentions and embedding new habits can lead to a more cohesive and aligned workforce, as individuals collectively embody the desired behaviours and values of the organisation.

The Challenge of Finding a Balance in Change Management.

We often struggled to find the middle ground. The important part of trying to make appropriate change and then, to potentially correct for it, is to make it a pendulum rather than a wrecking ball.

Regardless of my thoughts about which process was right, it did seem the long way around to spend a good two and a half years changing processes and systems in the business only to revert to a previous process and put more money into going back to their original way of working. The flip side of this is that it takes courage to admit when something we thought would work out turns out not to work. The honest facing of the change and owning that the original process was working better than they realised takes some level of psychological safety and striving for excellence. Amy Edmonson might even credit them with being a learning organisation.

This situation highlights the challenge of finding a balance in change management. It is important to continuously improve processes and systems to stay competitive and efficient. However, rushing into changes without thoroughly considering the potential consequences can lead to wasted resources and effort. The complexity of organisational change requires careful planning and evaluation to ensure that the investment in transformation is truly beneficial in the long run. For a deeper understanding of effective retail project management strategies, explore our Project Management services and book a call with us today.