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The Anatomy of Change

Change is often described as a continuous process.

My instruction and experience suggests otherwise. Change is an impulse - identical to how impulse is described in physics - application of force over a short time internal.

Why do we perceive change as a continuous process? This is because change may appear to be continuous. In my view, it is composed of 3 discrete steps - first we prepare for change, then we change, and finally we sustain change. Often, these 3 steps are hard to distinguish.

Take a simple - and unfortunately common - example.

Fat Loss. Joining a gym and changing dietary choices are actions that take place in days. However, preparing for this change can take months (most recently, it took me over a year), and sustaining it is an ongoing process.

The philosophy of Kaizen delves deep into how to affect change. Kaizen, a Japanese word, literally means change ("Kai") to the next elevated state ("Zen"). A loose and incomplete English translation is "continuous improvement". A more accurate description would be - a series of changes to the next elevated state - in search for perfection.

Practically, what do these 3 steps - preparation, change, and sustenance - mean for the organizations that we are a part of?

Preparation for change starts with perceiving the need for change.

In organizations, this is often precipitated by a crisis - either external or internal. Great leaders bring about change by creating an internal crisis - well before external changes forces it upon the organization.

Once there is a need to change, organizations need to agree on what to change, and how to effect this change. This can be termed alignment. And aligned organization pushes in the same direction, accelerating the path to change. Conversely, a misaligned organization expends tremendous effort without commensurate gain - leading to fatigue and disillusionment.

Change itself is pure action.

In organizations, it translates to a synchronous set of actions. Actions cannot be synchronous without alignment, much like a clock that cannot work unless the right gear, in the right place, rotates at the right speed.

The hardest part is sustaining change. Here, I would draw particular attention to the effect of environment on sustaining change (and even initiating it).

Let's consider a simple example.

You are a hospital administrator who wants to improve the quality of outpatient services. You define quality as correctness of diagnosis, ease of accessing services, and cost-effectiveness of care delivered. An understanding of the present state (and all its imperfections) is vital to preparing for change.

Since you are an administrator, you first focus on ease of access - it seems well within your span of control. You and your team (composed of receptionists, pharmacists, and lab technicians) agree that reducing wait time would go a long way in improve ease of access. Now, you are aligned.

You conduct a Kaizen to impact this metric - successfully. For instance, you improve communication between the doctor's office and the pharmacy in order to reduce wait times at the pharmacy counter. Such changes require staff to be timely and efficient. However, the environment they continue to work in does not operate in a similar manner. The rest of the staff, whether due to overloading or poorly-defined processes, are frequently late in completing their patient care activities. How long do you think the change will last?

Hence, to sustain change, the environment has to enable it. Beyond the environment, operating standards also have to be modified - so that today's change becomes tomorrow's habit.

In summary - change is a 3-step process - preparation (need, alignment), change (synchronous action), sustenance (environment, operating standards). By practicing it in our daily lives, we can be better equipped to facilitate it at work.

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