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Use readiness levels to improve the success rate of large-scale change initiatives

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I am the general manager of Arvense Groupa company that helps engineering and manufacturing companies to become more competitive.

The success and failure rates of large-scale change initiatives are widely discussed, as noted in the Harvard Business Review (registration required)† Estimates are across the board. The failure rates range from 10%-70%. One thing I think we can all agree on is that meaningful transformations require a lot of discipline and effort. It is important to objectively assess your current condition and determine how much preparation and work it will take to close the gap to your desired future condition. Taking the time to complete these steps beforehand can help ensure you’re ready to compete before going live with your next change.

Many engineering firms are well acquainted with technology readiness levels (TRL) and use these levels as an assessment tool. The TRLs provide a quantitative scale of 1-9 to determine the maturity of a specific technology. NASA offers: more depth on the TRLs, but in short, they are divided into three buckets:

• Levels 1-3 are in the Research Bucket.

• Levels 4-6 are in the development bucket.

• Levels 7-9 are in the implementation bucket.

The TRLs can be very valuable in determining whether a new technology is ready to be deployed in your operational environment. Engineering teams are typically excellent at assessing the effectiveness of a technology to solve a specific problem, but I’ve found that the results fall short of expectations.

That leads to the question, “If the problem has been correctly identified and the right technical solution discovered, why do we still have such a high failure rate?”

I believe that a major factor contributing to this high failure rate is due to the lack of attention to the organizational readiness levels (ORL). ORLs can be used as an assessment framework in parallel to the technological readiness levels.

ORLs provide business leaders with an approach to assess the capabilities of their current workforce and determine whether they have the necessary skills to implement and sustain a new solution/technology. This structure is intended to provide more objectivity to the assessment of organizational readiness. ORLs are also divided into three buckets:

1. Explore: These are efforts that are just starting to scratch. This bucket includes reading white papers and watching videos/demonstrations.

2. Learning: This is when you start to gain enough knowledge to be dangerous. This bucket contains active experiments and pilot projects.

3. Apply: The last level is when you begin to bring proficient understanding into your particular work environment. This bucket includes solving real business problems and implementing solutions at scale.

To perform this assessment, start by plotting possible solutions on a graph to visualize and rank how each of the solutions relates to each other. This provides a single view to establish strategic direction and drive alignment across the organization.

Inevitably, this review will identify some initiatives that have started but don’t really align with the strategic direction. This may lead to challenging conversations between team members. I encourage you to engage in these discussions. In my experience, it is much more beneficial to focus all team members on initiatives that set the needle in motion than to have the members scattered and distracted, trying to do too much at once.

After completing the assessment, use this information to determine what work is needed to close the gap and to develop an implementation plan. For example, if 3D printing is a level 9 technology and determined to bring significant benefit to your business, but the organization is still in the exploration phase, ensure that the implementation plan includes significantly more time and resources to build the organizational capacity and training members of the team.

In summary, use these buckets to help your organization objectively determine to what extent it is currently possible to implement and maintain a new technical solution. By paying equal attention to organizational and technology readiness, companies can increase the likelihood of a successful implementation.


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