The Shocking Truth About Your Improvement Project

Yesterday I read that only 5% of the changes we make at work are changes for the better.  Only 1 in 20 improvements actually improve things.

Allegedly everything else we do is ineffective or, worse still, counter-productive.

Ungrounded statistics

I thought that sounded horribly harsh.  Only 1 in 20 improvements are really improvements?  It sounded more like a management consultant trying to make a point and drum up some business than a grounded statistic.

So I wrote a list of knock out questions to check the statistic.  A way of separating the real improvements from the false ones, then tested a list of improvements against it.

Was my improvement really an improvement?

Did my actions make the world a better place?

  • Was I really clear what the problem was before I started fixing things?
  • Was I sure who it was a problem for and did they agree it needed fixing?
  • Did I get at the root cause of the problem and tackle the real issue?
  • Were there any side effects that muddied the waters?
  • Was I really better off after the change?  Could I measure a difference?
  • Was I positive that the problem didn’t just go away by itself?
  • Was the person with the problem happy with the fix, or were they being polite so I would go away?

That knocked out a false improvement or two

Of the twenty improvements I started with more than a handful hit the dust.  But I still had a few dubious improvements left.  So I asked myself a final question…

If, in my heart of hearts, I know that the improvement didn’t make any positive difference at all, did I admit it and learn from the experience?  Or am I still swearing blind that it was a success?

Is the statistic still ungrounded?

Perhaps 1 in 20 isn’t such an unfounded allegation after all.  Not all changes are improvements.

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  1. Now That’s Interesting…

    While reading your post I immediately went to “Cool ideas” around the office that we implement but the excitement fades and we realize no one wants to maintain it. That being said, it’s so important to continue to try new things if your intent is on making a difference and bringing about real improvement. The learning aspect in success and failure is the most important part. Great post!

    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks for your comment Jeremy, I couldn’t agree more with your last point. Even if your project is an abject failure and you learn from it it will have been far from a waste of time.

  2. James,

    This is a fair exercise for everyone to undertake. I think your evaluation criteria are solid.

    I like this one… Was I sure who it was a problem for and did they agree it needed fixing? Reminds me of… “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

    Annette :-)

  3. Great set of questions, James. I would love to cite these in my DMAIC training class, if you are agreeable. Good summation of the key concepts wrapped in the methodology. Thanks for the post.

  4. James,
    Great questions and I suspect that we look for and create work to make ourselves look busy.

    However, if we applied these questions rigorously and continuously wouldn’t that give a lot of people a lot less to do? If that was the case, would that mean that they would focus on less and more meaningful problems and then achieve more OR they’d have to go and find another job?


    • James Lawther says:

      Maybe both would be a good thing? Though I guess it wouldn’t feel like that at the time for those involved. Sad how we are prepared to make do with a bad situation.

  5. Pramendra Singh says:

    James wen you say “Yesterday I read that only 5% of the changes we make at work are changes for the better. Only 1 in 20 improvements actually improve things”.

    Are you referring to the Point # 3 mentioned under “Some Axioms for Change” on page number 227 of the Book The Leader’s Handbook Making Things Happen, Getting Things Done by Peter Scholtes.

    Is it from some research finding or just an statement ?

    • James Lawther says:


      I think it was (I certainly have the book and would recommend it to anybody else).

      I suspect there is no hard and fast evidence, it isn’t the sort of statement any organisation would welcome being published about itself, though for what it is worth my (sample of 1 – me) study of 6 or 7 organisations would back it up.

      How many times have you seen “training” implemented without any real benefit or improvements for one person (eg SLA’s) that mess it up for everybody else?

      Thanks for your comment


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