Beyond20: A ServiceNow Elite Partner Developing a Culture of Continual Improvement with OCM - Beyond20
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How to develop a culture of continual improvement with Organizational Change Management

Kevin Jones
Written by Kevin Jones

While there’s never enough time to do it right, we always find time to do it again.


Far too many years ago than I care to count, a customer hit me with that line above and I keep coming back to it for two reasons: 1) Because it explains so much. 2) Because it is so grimly funny. This observation shines a light on a truth that clobbers nearly all of us: we are all so busy trying to make things happen that we completely forget to make things better. In other words, it is just too easy to spend all of our time putting out forest fires and completely forget to plant the forest. Not only is this human nature, it can also be(come) a big part of our organization’s culture.

To help solve this age old conundrum and extract ourselves from the inferno, this article is going to spend some time at the intersection of Where do we want to be? (Continual Improvement) and How do we get there? (Organizational Change Management).

Is it? © KC Green

What is a Culture of Continual Improvement?

Getting to a culture of continuous improvement requires effort, planning, and most of all commitment. But the critical value realized by Continual Improvement is how we future-proof our organizations. It’s how we keep our finger on the pulse of critical stakeholders, both inside and outside of our organizations. It’s how we maintain the posture of co-creating value with our consumers.

Without Continual Improvement, many teams find out far too late that their customers’ idea of value has moved on or that the industry has found better ways to create, manage, and deliver their products or services. Where there is no continual improvement culture, you will find entropy or back-sliding. Think of every wildly successful company that is now historical corporate roadkill (Blackberry and Blockbuster come immediately to mind). In short, due to lack of foresight, organizations can get disrupted, abandoned, and left behind.

Continual Improvement and Organizational Change Management as ITIL 4 Practices

While Continuous/Continual Improvement has been part of ITIL since at least Version 2, ITIL 4 (released in 2019) officially welcomed Organizational Change Management (OCM) and several other practices, formerly called processes, into the club.

ITIL 4 includes three types of practices: Technical Management, Service Management, and General Management. Both Continual Improvement and OCM are designated as General Management practices, meaning their impact is more business-focused and they can (and should) be applied across the organization. The full list of ITIL 4 General Management practices is captured in the below figure. Any ITIL 4 Foundation training course worth its salt will cover all three practice types in depth.

ITIL 4 General Management Practices

Figure 1: ITIL 4 General Management Practices

A quick note about terminology: while ITIL prefers the term continual improvement, many outside of this community are more familiar with continuous improvement. The differences are subtle but important. Continual Improvement, as leveraged by ITIL, can be associated with ISO 9001 and indicates that we are acting in a series of improvement events, usually in response to a defect or customer issue. Whereas we can align continuous improvement with Lean and use to understand the idea of an unending flow of little improvement all the time. While I will concentrate on Continual Improvement in this essay, many use it as a stepping-stone to get to continuous improvement, should that be what their demands require. For the purpose of this article, I will bounce around between them.

What Is Continual Improvement?

Let’s define some terms. According to the Continual Improvement ITIL 4 Practice Guide, the purpose of the continual improvement practice is to “align the organization’s practices and services with changing business needs through the ongoing improvement of products, services, practices or any element involved in the management of products and services.”

Basically, Continual Improvement is concerned with the improvement of anything involved in the co-creation of value with our consumers. As per the Continual Improvement ITIL 4 Practice Guide, the scope of Continual Improvement includes:

Establishing and nurturing a continual improvement culture

This is more than simply standing up a new process, procedure or even a new team. This is establishing Continual Improvement as the new mindset of the organization, part of the new culture. This is a job for OCM.

Planning and maintaining improvement approaches and methods throughout the organization

We want Continual Improvement to be a practice with its own established methodology, existing enterprise wide rather than as a series of un/disconnected improvement shops. We should draw inspiration from two of the Seven Guiding Principles:

  • Progress iteratively with feedback
  • Think and work holistically

Such improvements could have major impacts on our entire Service Value System and cause us to rethink large section of our organization. Whether for good or bad, if is far better for us that we find these issues rather than having the issues finding us.

Planning and facilitating ongoing improvements throughout the lifecycle

We take these centralized approaches and leverage them end-to-end across the organization in a connected and interdependent way. Taking our cues from Think and work holistically, we want to investigate how these improvements will impact the value streams they intend to improve.

Assessing improvements’ effectiveness, including outputs, outcomes, efficiency, risks, and costs

As you can see, each one of these elements will influence the ones that follow it. With this one, the Practice Guide even gives us the type of evaluations we should consider as we assess our progress.

We have all seen the situation where an improvement at one step of a process/value stream inadvertently creates a bottleneck somewhere down the line. This is we want to take to end-to-end point of view.

Generating and incorporating feedback on improvements’ implementations and results

While most Continual Improvements should be fairly small in scope and fairly evolutionary, some can be major and even revolutionary. It is important that we track and manage it all. If for no other reason that we can continue to improve our own Continual Improvement.

Note: After passing your ITIL 4 Foundation exam, you will get free access to all of the ITIL 4 documentation through your MyAxelos account at their website.

What Does a Continual Improvement Culture Look Like?

Intentionally practicing continual improvement will be a major cultural change for many organizations. This means moving from an ad hoc, scattered, often informal approach towards improvement to implanting Continual Improvement into the very core of who we are and what we do as an organization.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast, operational excellence for lunch and everything else for dinner.” – Peter Drucker

And culture changes should not be taken lightly. Just as in the table above, these items will flow down, (re)creating dependencies and (re)establishing prerequisites, one to the next. To evolve and adapt to this culture of Continual Improvement, your organization must:

Encourage stakeholders to suggest and support improvement

Depending on your organization, this alone could be a substantial culture change. Stakeholders must feel safe and valued enough to even make suggestions.

Encourage stakeholders to express their needs, wants and concerns and to take risks

As from above, the stakeholders must not just feel but actually be involved in the processes, that their voices count.

Recognize that perfectionism is typically self-defeating and blocks timely improvements

This is where the 80/20 rule (also known as the Pareto Principle) shows itself. Do not permit perfect to become the enemy of good (or good enough). Again, in some organizations this alone can be a major culture change.

Consider continual improvement to be a Business as Usual (BAU) activity

Now we move away from Continual Improvement as a way to get around a particular obstacle towards Continual Improvement as the way we do things around here. Again, instituting Continual Improvement as part of the new culture. (Hey OCM, I’m looking at YOU, pal!)

Encourage fast feedback loops

From the viticulturist’s point of view, no wine will ever get made if we leave the grapes to rot on their vines. Likewise, how much relevance can we expect from our improvement projects if we do not gather and implement what we have learned? Harvest and then process that hard-won knowledge.

Promote learning from failures rather than a blame culture

Again, this can be a profoundly difficult cultural transformation for man organizations. I saw this bit of wisdom that expresses the idea brilliantly printed on a t-shirt last summer: It is only failure if I refuse to learn from it. Use your failures as learning experiences, ways to figure out what to do / what not to do, and how to get better. The first step in this direction is always the hardest.

As I mentioned earlier, none of this is an accident; OCM requires intentionally, planning and collaboration across your organization. But without this extra effort on the people side, much of our complex process and technical planning and execution can fall short or fail out right because our stakeholders do not have the desire to embrace the change (because we did not even try to convince them) or that times, our customers and the market have simply moved on before you could bring our A Game (we never asked them convince us).

Structures that get in the Way of a Continual Improvement Culture

Since we now have a working definition of what a continual improvement culture should look like, let’s talk about the ways organizations often stumble into continuous improvement without clear direction from the top.

Yes, it sounds like a great idea but is it our idea? Does our culture indicate what will be the natural approach? How resistant is our organization to implementing and embracing change, even the good ideas? How receptive are we to receiving imposed structure? Here follows two examples on disconnected, incomplete implementations of Continual Improvement. Both may look extremely familiar.


Rather than a culture of Continual Improvement, all too many organizations have a culture of Intermittent Improvement. In an adhocracy, a singular “hero” or a team of superstars recognize the glaring need for an improvement (good for them) and take it upon themselves to fix, modify, upgrade or update a product or service.

On the surface, this looks like a group of good corporate citizens identifying a need and stepping in to resolve it. This is collaboration in its highest form as ITIL 4 would define it, right? Superficially, sure, but below decks in the engine room, not so much:

  • Without involving other stakeholders such as customers and end-users, there is a good chance the heroic changes being made are suboptimal, fail to meet stakeholder needs, or even make things worse.
  • Even if their changes are beneficial, heroes need time away just like the rest of us. What happens when the hero is on vacation, out sick, or is simply overwhelmed with other work?  Let’s be kind to our people . . . nobody wants our comic-book superheroes on staff to spend late nights at the office or miss weekends with the family because they are performing yet another miracle IT feat. It’s not sustainable and certainly not scalable.

This is not an employee problem or even a resource problem –  it is a culture problem. It’s one thing to celebrate your “first responders” when they step in and save the day in a singular, critical situation. It’s altogether different to set up your entire organization to be dependent on them as the go-to improvement team. What all organizations need is a formal, structured, data-driven approach to Continual Improvement.

Easier said than done.

From the middle outwards

Let’s say you have a very collaborative, forward-thinking manager, maybe even your IT Director. She has a great track record of implementing good ideas with little or no resistance… and they work. In this case, she has even begun implementing Continual Improvement. Maybe you have directed her to do this, or perhaps she has taken it upon herself. Either way, she is beating back the uncoordinated efforts and has begun focusing on the end results. The fruits of all of her labor are greatly appreciated by leadership.

Then she leaves, gets promoted, or otherwise sees her duties change. In far too many organizations, her departure will see her shiny new Continual Improvement implementation go away with her. This is because it was always her change and not the organization’s. It was her presence, charisma, and her force of will that made things happen. With her elsewhere, so much of what she accomplished will revert to status quo ante.

This shows that despite her best efforts, the organization was not ready for the change. She may have temporarily short circuited the organizational inertia, but she was not able to overcome it. The organization was just not ready. Organizational change readiness is a concept we will come back to.

Organizational Change Management Paves the Way for Improvement

According to the Organizational Change Management ITIL 4 Practice Guide, the purpose of OCM is to ensure changes in an organization are implemented smoothly and successfully, and that lasting benefits are achieved by managing the human aspects of the change.

Project management prepares the solution for the organization while OCM prepares the organization for the solution.

Let’s situate What we need to do is take a holistic approach to all changes and implementations. For example, ITIL 4 rolled out the Four Dimensions of Service Management with the intention of using it like a pilot’s checklist. Pay special attention to all of these dimensions. Do not leave anything out. The Four Dimensions of Service Management (pictured below) are:

  • Organizations & People
  • Information & Technology
  • Partners & Suppliers
  • Value Streams & Processes

Failing to consider even one of these elements could result in serious failure for any changes, updates, additions, or removals you plan to enact. When we look at ITIL 4’s Four Dimensions of Service Management, we can see the impacts of OCM all over it.

The Four Dimensions of Service Management

Figure 2: The Four Dimensions of Service Management

Those of us who have spent our careers in IT will, of course, feel most comfortable with Dimension 2 Information & Technology. There we find the toys (the technology) we all signed up for IT to play with. As well, we understand the need for contractors, vendors, and suppliers so Dimension 3, Partners & Suppliers, makes perfect sense as well. Once we get beyond its newness, we can even understand the value behind the fourth Dimension, Value Streams & Processes. But it is that first one that is the most baffling and difficult for most of us to manage – Organizations & People.

I would like to think that Axelos placed it first because they did not want us to miss it. I decided to get involved in OCM about ten years ago because I saw too many otherwise fine solutions go sideways because teams did not bring people along for the journey. Properly executed, OCM can mean the difference between change and transformation.

Use OCM to Implement Continual Improvement

Like all ITIL 4 practices, implementing a formal Continual Improvement Practice is no small undertaking and, like most major changes, it cannot be successful when attacked from the middle.

Before Continual Improvement and OCM can join forces, OCM must blaze the trail so your organization will accept Continual Improvement. There are lots of differing levels of Change Readiness for organizations and much of that will be tied to culture. As I mentioned earlier, OCM is here to prepare the organization for the change.

One of the reasons –  perhaps the primary reason – that your gifted IT Director’s Continual Improvement bid did not stick was that people in the broader organization did not see the personal value, the “What’s in It for Me?” (WIIFM). To put this through the lens of Prosci’s ADKAR model, what are we doing to stoke Desire? We told our staff what to do but we did not share the why. If they have no desire to make the change, chances are they will backslide to previous behaviors when given the chance. Hence, once that charismatic leader moves on, so much of what she had accomplished falls away without her.

Top-Down Leadership is Critical for Continual Improvement

When it comes to a major change in business as usual (BAU), such as promoting Continual Improvement, leadership must lead. Changes like this need to be top-down affairs. Leaders at the highest level must be able to articulate why Continual Improvement is so important to us all. This is why it is so important that we approach it in a particular way and what will be the benefit to us all (WIIFM again).


Continual Improvement Hierarchy

Figure 3: The Continual Improvement Hierarchy

Axelos’ publication Organizational change management ITIL 4 Practice Guide has quite a bit to say about basic principles for organizational change. It is very keen to emphasize the importance of positive stakeholder empowerment over negative resistor management. ITIL 4 is careful to base recommendations on recent findings on human behavior and motivation such as the “nine principles for good design of organizational change” found in this Forbes article. The ITIL 4 OCM Practice Guide specifically calls out these four concepts for good design of organizational change.

ITIL 4's Four Concepts for Good Design of Organizational Change

Figure 4: ITIL 4’s Four Concepts for Good Design of Organizational Change


Organizational Change Management Helps Overcome Resistance

Choreographing this elaborate dance will entail your OCM team balancing and coordinating activities between managing:

  • Sponsors for leadership
  • Project management for solution delivery
  • OCM for readying the organization for the change

And this is where tapping OCM to help you drive home this project is key. Everyone is so busy just trying to get their daily tasks done that no one has time to do both their work and figure out how to make a change. Others may feel threatened by the new direction. Any way you slice it, when it comes to change, there is always something for someone not to like.

Once the decision has been made to commit, leadership’s job is to identify sponsor(s) from within their ranks to represent this new normal to the wider world and work with OCM. Good sponsorship is critical to the success of any major undertaking. In Best Practices in Change Management, 11th Edition, Prosci states that active and visible executive sponsorship has been voted as the most important contributor to success in every single biannual survey they have conducted starting with the very first one in 1998 up to the most recent in 2019 11th edition. They determined that extremely effective sponsors correlated to meeting objectives 73% of the time. A good OCM team will help you, the sponsor, craft your messaging to the targeted stakeholder groups, place you in the right meetings to explain why this important to you, the sponsor, and the larger organization, and demonstrate your commitment to implementing Continual Improvement as not just a passing fad that will blow over but as the new normal.

Executive leadership will decide on the goals and objectives for Continual Improvement to achieve and charter a project to make this happen. OCM will also coordinate with the project management team in charge of delivering Continual Improvement to your organization. As I said earlier, project management builds the solution, OCM makes sure the organization is ready to embrace it. Rolling out enterprise-wide Continual Improvement is no small matter. It will change the way substantial parts of your organization will go about these tasks and may require new ways of doing things that your organization may need to develop. But even the best solutions will fail if they are not embraced by the people we need to use them.

OCM and Continual Improvement: Better Together

With Continual Improvement now implemented as part of your organization’s current state, we can close this article by talking about the alliance between Continual Improvement and OCM. Rather than competitive, these two practices are deeply complementary.

As a practice, OCM is designed to overcome the barriers to change. Specifically managing the resistance stakeholders demonstrate when they feel excluded or do not see the value personally of this new change. We call in OCM when we anticipate large changes with substantial impact to our stakeholders. Events like buy outs, mergers, acquisitions, restructuring as well as major changes to processes, products, services and business models are all usual suspects for OCM attention.

Continual Improvement is usually (though not always) seen as addressing changes that are smaller in scale, less risky and more evolutionary. More often than not, it produces refinements to existing processes, products and services. Changes that are more digestible, more incremental.

It is when the really big, important changes, the ones so large that they are likely to generate resistance, come about through Continual Improvement that we will require OCM support to drive home the people angle of the people, process and technology triangle. Likewise, many times during the OCM portions of a project, necessary changes to processes, products and/or services may come to light. So rather than confusing them, these two processes should be leveraged together as a one-two punch combination. To be clear, not every Continual Improvement change will require OCM support and not every OCM engagement need be derived from a Continual Improvement project. But one will very often feed the other. And together they make a very strong partnership.

ITIL 4 Courses that address Continual Improvement and Organizational Change Management
If the concepts of Continual Improvement and Organizational Change Management capture your attention, there are several ITIL courses that you should consider taking:

  • Direct, Plan, and Improve – This course covers both Continual Improvement and OCM in depth as well as ways to align plans at various levels of the organization.
  • High Velocity IT – This course discusses how to deliver results to stakeholders quicker and delves into topics such as Agile and DevOps, both of which require supportive cultures.  HVIT specifically addresses how to create a “safety culture” where teams avoid toxic culture and finger-pointing and where employees feel free to be themselves and express themselves.
  • Digital and IT Strategy – This course discusses continual improvement and OCM in the context of digital transformation which can, by its very nature, be disruptive.

Get your DITS together

Lately, digital transformation efforts have been some of the biggest drivers of OCM excellence in the IT community. Our Digital & IT Strategy course covers how Continual Improvement and OCM fit into and support these ambitious, critical goals.
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Originally published August 08 2022, updated January 01 2024