Using Lewin’s Change Model to Understand Continuous Improvement

When we are talking about Lean, we are talking about continuous improvement. Continuous improvement requires a system, process, organizational structure, and cultural change. It is necessary that involved parties understand the change process in order to initiate change. The change process itself can be easily explained with Lewin's change model.

Lewin state that a successful change consist of three stages: (1) Unfreezing, (2) Transition, and (3) Freezing. When an issue arises in a balanced system and change is need, the change process starts with the activation of the change. This is the toughest stage as resistances against the change have to be overcome. People have to agree that the change is necessary. Leaders need to get people on board, develop a common mind-set, and keep people motivated to make the change. Expectations must be clear to everyone and the question of why the change is important needs to be explained. Therefore, preparation is essential in this stage.

During the second stage the change is taking place and has to be managed. The second stage then transitions into the third stage where the change becomes part of the status quo. The new system is now fully implemented, in balance, and will be protected against changes. This leads to new resistances against change. Figure 1 illustrates the cycle of change based on Lewin’s model. In all three stages, communication is key as change starts with and is dependent upon the people in the system. Without the willpower of people no long-term change can be achieved and eventually things will revert back to the old system.

Figure 1. Lewin’s Change Model as Continuous Improvement Process

By not knowing about the change process, Lewin’s model shows that the team will quickly go back to the old system. The change can either be small or large and has various impact on an organization. In Lean, we refer to positive change as improvements. As a result, Lewin’s three stage model of change and the concept of continuous improvement are strongly linked to each other. Continuous improvement implies change and change always consists of Lewin’s three stages. Changing a system does not necessarily imply continuous improvement. Continuous improvement is an iterative process that involves a series of changes. If the change is just a one time event then it may be an improvement, but it is not continuously. Without continuous improvement, the cycle in figure 1 will have just one iteration and stops after the new system becomes balanced and turns into the current system.

Changing the traditional system towards a more collaborative Lean culture requires a tremendous amount of effort from the whole organization. Careful preparation is essential for success. People need to understand that there will be lots of argumentation and iteration. Consequently, the change process has to be implemented step-by-step without overwhelming the individuals in order to achieve sustained success.


1. Lewin, Kurt (1951). Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers. Publication of the Research Center for Group Dynamics, Univ. of Michigan. Harper, New York

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