Everyday Kanban

Discussing Management, Teams, Agile, Lean, Kanban & more

Why improvement initiatives fail

How many times have you heard “We tried that and it was horrible. It just didn’t work for us.”? I hear that a lot. Heck, I have even said that at times in the past regarding ideas for team improvement. Its a very common condition that a company will bring in a consultant to implement a big change initiative that is set to greatly improve a team or company’s performance. Often it is a big, sweeping change such as taking waterfall teams to scrum or some other way of working that really requires a complete shift in how you think about work. Now, if you do these methods like Scrum, XP, etc well and the team is ready for this size change, you can really reap some rewards. However, a good percentage of the time these methods are scrapped and the initiative is abandoned. Why is that?

The answer is that they’ve fallen into the J-Curve and can’t get up. Have you ever heard the phrase “it is going to get worse before it gets better?” Remember the last time a new person joined your team… how there was an initial negative impact on productivity before it got better? That’s exactly what the J-Curve depicts.

The J-Curve Effect

The J-Curve Effect

Now, as you can see in the picture, many people, often executives, don’t anticipate the dip. They only focus on the gain and the dip surprises them. However, you’ll find that despite that, there is tolerance there. The problem is that, in many situations, the size of the change (aka the depth of the J-Curve) is greater than the organization’s tolerance for change. When this is mismatched, great ideas are abandoned. You must either understand the climate that you’re navigating, and its tolerance for disruption, when implementing change.

If there isn’t tolerance for a major shift and you still need to solve the initial problem, you will need to take a different tactic. You can climb up that same mountain that the J-Curve represents but with multiple smaller changes. I like to call it “baby steps to awesomeness” but its much better known as Kaizen. With the small, incremental changes you will still have the dip of a J-Curve, but they will follow within tolerance levels. And, in the end you still reach the goal, but you also re-evaluate after each J-Curve to ensure that the path you’re on is the one that will really take you where you need to go.


  1. Totally. I find all you can do is make sure everyone agrees on the recognized areas for improvement, how the change will address them, and get buy in without agonizing over unanimous support. Hypersensitivity to pains of change can get more demoralizing then implementing no change at all. To some degree, that’s where leadership come in – someone who demonstrates consistent faith in the change, as well as the fact that for better or worse you can continue to change direction to adapt and improve.

    I’d imagine some of the more successful consultant firms prepare clients for this J curve.

    • I prefer to avoid preparing people for change that will be extremely uncomfortable if I can get them there without it. In other words I don’t recommend that people assume that pushing through the pain of a large J-curve is the only way. Its not the J-curve that’s bad. Its having too large of one. Again, you can get where you want with smaller more incremental or evolutionary changes.

      I get what you’re saying, but i’d rephrase it as “I’d imagine some of the more successful consultant firms learn their environment and plan the right size change for the team they are helping”

  2. I am convinced with the fact that the depth of “J curve ” is something that every company has to bear. and this is where comes the question of resistance to change and also the tolerance, when the change is being foreseen. I believe smaller smaller Js (offering less of resistance and pain while the change is being brought) is a better idea than a one big one (with the tolerance level might become a question)

  3. Koti Reddy Bhavanam

    March 8, 2014 at 4:12 am

    I think we should have real business buy in to act on the improvements. If it is a formality then the success rate would be less. Almost all improvement steps or initiatives are well proven and if they are failing for you means, there is something wrong with your organization or the organization assessment on the improvement initiative.

  4. Perfect. Too many organizations abandon the change initiative at the bottom of the J-curve, then go on and do the same with another one. All they get is the costs with none of the benefit. That’s like stock market investors who sell at the bottom and buys at the top. They go broke really fast. The best strategy is to double-down at the bottom, but of course the fundamentals of the strategy need to be sound (impact of problems it is solving, and track record of the solution and its implementers).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

© 2024 Everyday Kanban

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑