Secrets of Sustainable Organizational Change: A Conversation with Lynn Kelley, Ph.D.

November 28, 2023
  • Private Banking
We sit down with BBH Senior Advisor Dr. Lynn Kelley to learn more about the key lessons from her new book, “Change Questions: A Playbook for Effective and Lasting Organizational Change,” and the importance of experimentation and failure in change management.

BBH Senior Advisor Dr. Lynn Kelley is a renowned thought leader in change management who specializes in helping organizations sustain change to cultivate a high-performance culture. Her new book, “Change Questions: A Playbook for Effective and Lasting Organizational Change,” serves as a powerful tool for individuals and organizations alike, enabling them to experiment with and devise highly effective change management strategies.

We recently sat down with Dr. Kelley to discuss her process for implementing change, how we can overcome change resistance, and the importance of failure in change implementations.

Your work and your new book, "Change Questions: A Playbook for Effective and Lasting Organizational Change,” focuses on implementing and sustaining organizational change. How often is a change implementation successful, and what are common reasons for failure?

Change implementation is only successful 30% to 40% of the time. Many organizations set a goal for change, but sometimes the change doesn’t meet the objective, or the changes disappear altogether and are not sustained in the long run.

If your definition of success for your change is that you want it to deliver certain sustained results, the probability of success is only 30% to 40%.

So why do changes fail? People often don’t recognize how difficult sustainable organizational change is, so they don’t take a bit of extra time beforehand to think about how to mitigate the risk of failure.

Throughout “Change Questions,” you use Union Pacific (UP) as a case study. Share with us what you were hired to do at UP.

I spent 20 years of my career implementing and leading groups in employing lean manufacturing – primarily in the automotive sector. Eventually, I moved up to implement all kinds of change.

A recruiter called me about a job at UP to look at lean manufacturing for the railroad. UP had 42,000 operating employees who weren’t in an office and who sometimes would go six weeks without seeing a supervisor. These were people running the trains and repairing the tracks. It seemed like a fun challenge to determine what it would look like to implement lean with that workforce.

What Is Lean Manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing is the process of engaging employees in improving the way they do their daily work to provide better value to customers. Employee participation in improving work performance often results in a productivity increase, better safety metrics, and better engagement metrics.

In “Change Questions,” you outline 11 questions that help improve the likelihood of success for a change. Are these the right questions for every change? How should readers use these questions?

Most of the change methodologies that are out there are good, but they typically have five to eight steps. Each time I failed over the course of 40 years of implementing change, I researched why that specific implementation failed and how the risk could be mitigated. Those learnings helped me come up with the 11 questions in the book.

When you’re thinking of implementing change, ask yourself: Which of these questions are appropriate for my change? Answering those questions will create a customized approach for each specific situation and how to address potential failure, instead of following a step-by-step model that is always the same.

Sometimes existing metrics can work against your change initiative. Take a call center, for example, that measures employees based on how long they take to resolve each call. The call center may say it wants to increase customer satisfaction, but if employees spend that extra time to increase customer satisfaction, they’re going to get penalized in the measurement system. In that case, it’s important to consider fixing the measurement system to achieve the change goal.

I found that following my 11 questions increased the probability of sustainable change to 96% at UP, where we had hundreds of change initiatives a year.

The Change Questions

What is your value-driven purpose?

  • What is the situational problem you want to solve with this change initiative?
  • What value will the change initiative deliver?

What is the work to be done to achieve the purpose or to solve the problem?

  • What work changes are required to achieve the objectives of the change initiative?
  • Where/how will you conduct learning trials to try out the change initiative in advance of the full launch?
  • How will you get feedback on the change initiative to determine whether it’s delivering the value that you expected?

How will you engage and develop employees?

  • What tools, resources, and development are necessary for employees to have the capability to implement the change initiative?
  • What is your communication plan to provide information consistently and proactively to employees/stakeholders about the change initiative?
  • How will you provide positive recognition that will support the change initiative?

How will you establish a supportive management system with the appropriate leader behaviors?

  • Does the existing management system support the change initiative?
    • If not, what changes can you propose?
  • How can leaders demonstrate active and visible support of the change initiative?

What are your organization’s beliefs, values, norms, attitudes, and assumptions?

  • Is your organization's culture supportive of the change initiative?
  • What actions can you take?

One of my favorite insights from your book (and from having the opportunity to engage you as an advisor to our work at BBH) is the 20-60-20 rule. Tell us about this idea and how it works.

There is a 20-60-20 curve applicable to people’s willingness to adopt new ways of doing things: 20% of people will resist change, 60% will be neutral, and 20% will be the change agents and early adopters.

You need the neutrals to swing over to the positive side. Whenever possible, start implementing the change with change agents. You can do this in many ways – as a pilot, an experiment, or a simulation, for example. When you start to have successes, share these wins – the middle group will get excited and want to be involved. That’s where you start the tipping point.

Most change is not done this way. People decide on the change, announce it, and everyone gets the information at the same time. Then, the resistors start the tipping point in the other direction, and it is difficult to overcome that momentum. On top of that, if you haven’t piloted with the change adopters, you often have bugs in your launch and create needless challenges to overcome with everyone.

In every organization, system, and family, there is always resistance to change – you describe it as a “natural bias toward the status quo.” How should change agents plan for and deal with change resistors?

Often when we’re implementing change, we think that people who resist change are the bad guys. It’s more helpful to give them the benefit of the doubt. Understand that they may have had issues with change in the past, likely believe their current processes work well, and are trying to protect themselves. Talk to them about their concerns and how to help.

I always create a customized plan for each group, and I leave the resistors for last. No one likes to be told what to do – especially someone not comfortable with change. If you get the change agents leading the charge and the neutrals on board, you reach a tipping point that makes it much easier to get the resistors to come along.

One of the change questions is about whether your culture supports the change. How can we assess this?

Trying to change an organization’s fundamental culture is difficult to do, but what you can do is have initiatives that will start to affect culture and push people in this new direction.

Whenever I’m implementing change, I do a quick assessment where I have people from different layers of the organization give me three positive and three negative things about the company’s culture. Their view often depends on where they sit in the corporation. For example, leaders tend to have a rosy glow of the culture. Different layers may have their own culture, but the commonalities across the board reveal the truth about the company’s culture.

To know if your culture can support change, get it down to the key elements. Then, ask yourself, “This is what our change initiative looks like. What in our culture would hinder that? And what can we leverage?” Look at it both ways.

In the book, you talk about the importance of using data to create and sustain a change initiative. How and when do you obtain reliable data on your change?

The research shows that if your change is going to fail, you can detect it in the first month.

Armed with this, I have always tried to get an early detection metric in place. That is why one of the change questions is about how to detect failure early – because you can course correct! No plan is ever perfect – you can experiment and adjust so that you iterate yourself to success.

At UP, we had everyone who was trained in a new way of doing things trained by their managers, but with us in the room to support that. We gave everyone an anonymous survey afterward asking if they understood the topic, if it would improve what it was intended to, if it would improve employee engagement, and if they could implement it.

A few weeks later, we sent a follow-up survey to see if it was actually working and improving outcomes. We were able to see who had and hadn’t implemented the change. The managers and employees who were successfully implementing the change were widely recognized across the company. For those who hadn’t, we reached out to see how we could help. We continued to follow up with surveys and could measure success by manager. This is an example of how you can track and link success with data.

What is the role of failure in change implementations, and how do successful organizations react to failure?

If there is no problem, that’s a problem. That tells you something about leadership. You need to feel free to talk about problems. Problems are not a sign of personal failure – they’re a sign that something needs to be fixed.

It comes down to how we address our problems, failures, and mistakes. You can iterate yourself to success if you really pay attention and learn. It takes a lot of work, but it takes more work to fail. Not only have you put in a lot of time and effort, but you leave behind failure debris. We do so much damage each time we walk away from a change without trying to fix it.

What’s the failure you have learned the most from personally?

I was a professor teaching about lean manufacturing, statistics, and measurements. A Michigan-based Tier 1 automotive supplier came to me for advice about how to implement lean manufacturing. I put together a plan for them, and the company took off like wildfire. They won the Michigan Quality Leadership Award, and a large U.S. industrial conglomerate purchased them because their numbers were off the charts.

At the same time, that acquirer also purchased a fastener company in France that was operating in the automotive space. They asked me to move to Paris to do the same thing I had done in Michigan. I failed miserably there, and I could not figure out why. It was an iconic French company that had produced the rivets for the Eiffel Tower, bought by an American company, with a U.S. woman coming in to tell them what to do – no way!

That’s when I realized the importance of buy-in and started to fixate on change management. It’s how the change questions started!

Lynn, thank you for your time. This has certainly affected how we will think about change going forward!

Contact Us

Up Next
Up Next

Five Questions with Lydia Fenet

In “Five Questions,” we speak with Lydia Fenet, founder of the Lydia Fenet Agency and author of “Claim Your Confidence,” about how to unlock your confidence and the importance of being comfortable with discomfort.

Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. (“BBH”) may be used to reference the company as a whole and/or its various subsidiaries generally. This material and any products or services may be issued or provided in multiple jurisdictions by duly authorized and regulated subsidiaries. This material is for general information and reference purposes only and does not constitute legal, tax or investment advice and is not intended as an offer to sell, or a solicitation to buy securities, services or investment products. Any reference to tax matters is not intended to be used, and may not be used, for purposes of avoiding penalties under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, or other applicable tax regimes, or for promotion, marketing or recommendation to third parties. All information has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but accuracy is not guaranteed, and reliance should not be placed on the information presented. This material may not be reproduced, copied or transmitted, or any of the content disclosed to third parties, without the permission of BBH. All trademarks and service marks included are the property of BBH or their respective owners. © Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. 2023. All rights reserved. PB-06866-2023-10-30

As of June 15, 2022 Internet Explorer 11 is not supported by

Important Information for Non-U.S. Residents

You are required to read the following important information, which, in conjunction with the Terms and Conditions, governs your use of this website. Your use of this website and its contents constitute your acceptance of this information and those Terms and Conditions. If you do not agree with this information and the Terms and Conditions, you should immediately cease use of this website. The contents of this website have not been prepared for the benefit of investors outside of the United States. This website is not intended as a solicitation of the purchase or sale of any security or other financial instrument or any investment management services for any investor who resides in a jurisdiction other than the United States1. As a general matter, Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. and its subsidiaries (“BBH”) is not licensed or registered to solicit prospective investors and offer investment advisory services in jurisdictions outside of the United States. The information on this website is not intended to be distributed to, directed at or used by any person or entity in any jurisdiction or country where such distribution or use would be contrary to law or regulation. Persons in respect of whom such prohibitions apply must not access the website.  Under certain circumstances, BBH may provide services to investors located outside of the United States in accordance with applicable law. The conditions under which such services may be provided will be analyzed on a case-by-case basis by BBH. BBH will only accept investors from such jurisdictions or countries where it has made a determination that such an arrangement or relationship is permissible under the laws of that jurisdiction or country. The existence of this website is not intended to be a substitute for the type of analysis described above and is not intended as a solicitation of or recommendation to any prospective investor, including those located outside of the United States. Certain BBH products or services may not be available in certain jurisdictions. By choosing to access this website from any location other than the United States, you accept full responsibility for compliance with all local laws. The website contains content that has been obtained from sources that BBH believes to be reliable as of the date presented; however, BBH cannot guarantee the accuracy of such content, assure its completeness, or warrant that such information will not be changed. The content contained herein is current as of the date of issuance and is subject to change without notice. The website’s content does not constitute investment advice and should not be used as the basis for any investment decision. There is no guarantee that any investment objectives, expectations, targets described in this website or the  performance or profitability of any investment will be achieved. You understand that investing in securities and other financial instruments involves risks that may affect the value of the securities and may result in losses, including the potential loss of the principal invested, and you assume and are able to bear all such risks.  In no event shall BBH or any other affiliated party be liable for any direct, incidental, special, consequential, indirect, lost profits, loss of business or data, or punitive damages arising out of your use of this website. By clicking accept, you confirm that you accept  to the above Important Information along with Terms and Conditions.

1BBH sponsors UCITS Funds registered in Luxembourg, in certain jurisdictions. For information on those funds, please see

captcha image

Type in the word seen on the picture

I am a current investor in another jurisdiction