Barriers to Process Redesign

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Changing a process and the relevant jobs, structure, and controls presents unique challenges, so a process redesign project will almost always encounter obstacles, barriers, and pitfalls.

Changing a process and the relevant jobs, structure, and controls presents unique challenges, so a process redesign project will almost always encounter obstacles, barriers, and pitfalls. Research conducted on reengineering projects has uncovered the barriers listed in Table 1.

Table 1: Barriers to Process Redesign



Turf battles by functional mangers 50.8%
Employee resistance to change 45.3%
No one in charge or with authority to push reengineering 42.2%
Lack of incentives from department or oversight department 41.3%
Difficulty of doing "out of the box" thinking 40.6%
Resources tied up in legacy systems 40.6%
Uncommitted top management 37.5%
Skepticism about another reform effort in our organization 37.5%


* From a 1994 National Academy of Public Administration Study of thirty state and thirty-one federal agencies involved in reengineering projects. 

Although the study focused on public-sector organizations, the barriers described in it occur in private and not-for-profit-organizations as well. If you're going to launch process improvement, there’s a strong likelihood you'll also experience one or more of these obstacles. Here’s how you can address each of the barriers.

No Surprises to Senior Management

Before starting any process improvement effort, senior management should understand that barriers are typical. Each must be discussed. A key question for senior management is, "If any of these barriers are encountered, how do you want to deal with them?" Listen carefully to the responses, because these comments are early indicators of commitment. If senior managers recognize how difficult each of the barriers can be and says, in effect, "Yes, there might be some tough challenges ahead, but we’ll do whatever is necessary to get this project completed," then your probability of success is much higher.


Turf Battles by Functional Managers

Turf battles are the main issue in cross-departmental process improvement efforts. Obviously, this isn't an issue if the effort is limited to one department. Turf disputes can manifest themselves in three ways:

Department heads don’t free up necessary staff to participate on a team.

Some of the staff have been appointed to the team. However, after a while, the department head pulls some of the staff off the project to work on other things.

When work is eliminated, new work created, and/or personnel moved from one department to another, managers will resist losing people and/or taking on new work.

Note that the responsibility for dealing with turf issues rests with the most senior person in the organization. Neither the project manager nor the facilitator has authority over department heads.


Resistance to Change

Overcoming resistance to change can be accomplished in four ways. First, people support what they help create, and they resist, fight, and sabotage what’s forced upon them. Thus, involving stakeholders in any process improvement is recommended. Remember, it’s often wise to go slowly to go fast. The time invested in creating involvement might seem excessive initially, but it ultimately will save time during implementation. Also remember that coming up with a new design isn’t difficult; implementing that design is by far the most difficult step.

Second, people have a right to their opinions. If you don’t honor this right, you can expect rage on some level. You might not see it, but it will be there. Listen to each person’s opinion and don’t fight the resistors. Instead, write their concerns on a flip chart, and let them know that the team is aware of these issues. By making it OK to resist, often another, hidden reason for resisting will surface. This might be the true concern, which the resistor, for a variety of reasons, didn't state initially.

Another rationale for respecting everyone's opinion is that the "resistor" might in fact be right. If the team is headed toward problems, a person’s concerns or warnings might forestall a disaster.

Third, any time you state a process is broken or needs fixing, it's not a far leap for some people to think they’re broken or need fixing. Frequently you’ll find people who've worked in a process for years. Over time they begin to identify with how the work is done. They "become the process." Thus, when you imply that something is wrong with it, they take it personally and think there's something wrong with them. You must make it perfectly clear that the process is the problem, not them.

At the beginning of a change effort, several things should be done. People's past accomplishments must be honored and appreciated. This lets them know there's nothing wrong with their work. Next, the reason for the change must be stated. This will help staff see the need to move the process to the next level of performance. Finally, describe the change method and how they will be involved.

Resistance often is rooted in a belief or assumption. Recall a time when you used to believe something that you don’t now. What happened to cause your change of opinion? Was it new information and/or experiences that caused the change? Probably it was one or the other, or a combination of the two. If you listen to resistors, you'll often hear them say, "That won’t work." Or, “If people just did their jobs, we wouldn’t have this problem." If you want to influence these people, you must find out what's truly motivating their resistance.

Once the belief is on the surface, you can test whether you've understood it by restating it to the resistor. If he or she agrees that you’ve stated it properly, the next question is, "What would it take for you to think differently about this?" In essence, you’re asking the resistor, "What information or experience do you need to think differently about this?" If he or she provides you with an answer, then it's your job to provide the evidence. Some resistors will say, "I don't know." In those situations, you'll have to guess.

Imagine the resistor's belief as frozen in a block of ice. Each new bit of information or experience that doesn't support the belief acts like an ice pick chipping away at the block. Some blocks need only a few whacks before they fall apart; others will need repeated whacks from different sources before they'll crack. It would be nice to know in advance how many whacks are necessary to get someone’s belief to change, but often the person is unaware of the underlying cause of his or her resistance, much less how to overcome it.

No One in Authority to Push the Change

To make large changes in a process, someone high up in the organization must really want the change. Before any process change effort is undertaken, find a champion or sponsor for the effort. Small changes in a process usually can be made without senior-level support, but remember: No surprises to senior management.

Lack of Incentives

This barrier usually is framed by the question, "Why do we have to make this change now?" You must offer compelling reasons in response. Some of these could be: "We're losing money"; "The customers are demanding it"; or "Competitors are taking customers."

Resistance to Innovate Thinking and Freeing Up Resources in Legacy Systems

These two are addressed together. Why does a person have difficulty accepting innovative thinking? The likely reason is that he or she has created the legacy system. People support what they help create. Again, honor people's past accomplishments, show appreciation for past efforts, and then state a compelling case for change.

Uncommitted Top Management and Skepticism Aabout Reform

These two issues are also linked. Why is there skepticism about another reform effort? The likely reason is that top management has pulled the plug on other change efforts, and hence staff is skeptical about this one.

Top management commitment is a requirement for major change. However, small changes in the process can be done without this commitment. If, initially, top management seems committed but then begins to waver, scale down your effort and go for smaller, easier process changes.

A test of top managers' commitment is whether they're willing to make the changes that are inexpensive and easy to implement. If they won't allow those to be implemented, it's time to abandon the effort. If they are willing to implement these, that will go a long way toward convincing the skeptics on the team. Nothing changes skeptics' attitudes like results.


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