The myth that 70% of change initiatives fail?

You often hear this percentage being banded around, especially by consultants, but is it true?

If it is an accurate figure, then why are so many companies still chasing change for their organisation?

Those who perpetuate the 70% myth often quote “The Inconvenient Truth about Change Management,” (McKinsey, 2009) which incorrectly references previous work. Virtually all figures quoted on or around the success or failure of change initiatives are merely estimates, including the early worked referenced in McKinsey’s paper. McKinsey did survey 1,546 executives asking them if their change initiatives were complete or mostly complete. Only 30% of the executives agreed that their initiatives were full; however, this doesn’t mean that incomplete efforts were unsuccessful. The same research found that 10% thought their programs were entirely or mostly ineffective. If we take it that 10% of the executives surveyed believed that their change programmes failed, then the success rate must be higher than the 30% that we are led to believe.


Perception often plays a significant part in how change is viewed. Do executives have a higher expectation of the outcomes of any change initiative, which leads to them to believe the change failed if it doesn’t deliver immediate results?

Overselling of benefits of any change programme at an early stage can set these expectations and, if the programme does not deliver all the benefits, then it can often be deemed a failure, this can mean that any benefits gained are ignored for the belief the programme failed.

Lean doesn’t work

It was brought home to me the other day when a client made the statement that “Lean does not work” and quoted that “the experts state that 70 per cent of Lean initiatives fail”. How to correct your client without them loosing face?

However, many companies have been succesful at implementing Lean change within their organisations but like a lot of things in our world, we would rather talk about the failures more than spotting the successes. Again, perception plays a part, often executives tell me that they want to be like Toyota, forgetting the fact that Toyota have been building their Lean system since the late 1950’s. No Lean system is going to give you Toyota overnight and Lean, like many change initiatives, need to be built on after the consultant/change agent has left.

A programme to deliver change may be measurable but the long-term effect of change is not so easy to put a number on. Often a companies culture is changed enough to build on early successes though it may also be the opposite and early success forgotten as things return to a previous state. Is successful change about training people on the use of tools and methods or is it challenging the culture, the way we interact, behave, and think. 

Before embarking on any change programme think about your culture and whether changing that should be your first step.