Change is ongoing and, one can argue, unavoidable. On a personal level, change results from a need to respond to the variability of factors that affect our family, health, social relationships, economics, communities and the environment around us. As we know, businesses face the same pressures from internal and external factors that seem to remain in constant motion. Given that change surrounds us, one would think we would become masters at handling it. But, as we well know, change — and managing it — can be difficult.

A variety of continuous improvement systems have been used with different levels of success by manufacturers from bun production to aircraft and by family-run businesses to multinational corporations. The one thing all these initiatives were designed for and reported to deliver was positive change. Yet, when CEB, a best-practice insight and technology company, studied 400 continuous improvement initiatives, they found less than 35% succeeded.

Why is it when the goal is to make things better, change is so difficult?

I suggest we need only look inward for the answer. Our natural reaction is to ask, “Why?” The questions, apprehension and feelings continue until the inevitable event — change — happens.

There are several ways to ensure that change is effective.

A good starting point is with analysis of the operation. What is actual performance? What are the actual costs? What are the limitations and/or influencers to actual cost and performance? The current operation needs to have performance documented and quantified and the root causes understood. With the current operations defined, what is the vision for the future? It is also time to consider what the impact on the operation and the business will be if changes are not made. The analysis also enables a clear articulation of the compelling reason for the change.

It also provides a true understanding of who benefits from it … and who will not. If the change is not positive for the individuals affected, it will be a hard sell. For example, if a change necessitates job restructuring (as it frequently does), the business gains through cost reduction. However, some employees will see it as an increase in work or as job enrichment while others will see their jobs disappear. Consider who benefits and who does not, and plan to address the needs and questions of each. With planning, even job reductions can be minimized or mitigated through hiring freezes, use of temporary workers and retraining initiatives.

With the background work prepared, it is time to plan how to move from today to the future. What resources will be needed? What will it cost? How long will it take? How will it be managed? How will it be monitored? How will it be communicated? What will be the results or the outlook if change is undertaken?

With a complete foundation and defined plan, it is time to get employees involved and the things in motion. Communication with the workforce is essential. Be prepared for varying feedback; employees may not process the change the same as you and I do. Expect the hard questions, and be prepared with the appropriate answers. In short order, it should not be hard to gain employee involvement and create a participative environment around needed change.

Lastly, as change is made, manage it, monitor it and make corrections as needed. Remember, it is the end vision that you are targeting, and as others get involved, the path to that vision may vary a bit.