Change management discussion paper

  • By Dr Peter Standish FAusIMM


Change management is frequently identified as either the root cause or a contributing factor in many incidents that relate to decisions made by professionals.

This paper provides an overview of the author’s observations of leading practice around change management – augmented by input from the AusIMM’s Health and Safety Society committee members.

For the purposes of this discussion, change management is defined as:

  • the identification and analysis of a variation in process, plant, people or place and the change’s potential to impact desired business outcomes
  • communication of the intended change with responsible and accountable role holders and others likely to be affected by the change as a formal review prior to launch
  • input of any additional activities identified by the reviewers (with a check for clashing effects on the change’s original intent)
  • execution of the change and implementation of any additional business activities needed to support the change and for ongoing work
  • communication and monitoring of operations post-change to confirm the effectiveness of the change.

Hallmarks of a leading practice system

The key to any successful system is ownership 

The top decision-maker in the organisation should be the one held accountable for the success of the change management system.

Below this level, all management team members and technical workers – those making decisions on process, plant (and parts), people or place (work environment setting) – should be responsible for owning control of change and business outcomes in their areas.

Change management should be practical

Like any system where functional groups can end up taking carriage (due to a crossover between operating departments in a business) there is a tendency for bureaucracy to blossom.

It is far better to have shorter and fewer forms and more use of the system.

Many people would have been exposed to the opposite – ie a 30-page change management manual with an accompanying 5-page multi-part form that takes a day to be trained in and multiple hours to complete for even the least impactful change on the site.

The level of formality should match the implications of consequences related to the change and not necessarily its size or complexity. As an example, making a change in the type of $50 fuse in a major process control system could warrant a more rigorous study than buying a new $5 million item of mobile plant for use in the operation.

The first could impact the ability to successfully operate (eg fuse failure could lead to major process loss and/or potential for a major safety incident) whilst the second may only relate to a slight increase in the frequency of traffic movements that are already operating in a stable and desirable way.

A leading practice framework

To be leading practice, the documented/required change management guidance material should come back to the five key steps outlined below.

1. Consideration of potential outcome – could what we’re about to change be connected to a loss we can’t tolerate[1]? Remember the four Ps:

  1. Is the process a critical path item for the project/business? Is it related to the ongoing ability to be a high reliability organisation, that is, will it impact on our ability to respond early and effectively to an emerging threat on site?
  2. Is the plant or component change related to items which are critical to business success and avoiding major loss?
  3. Will the change to people affect the level of skill available to support key business systems?
  4. Will the change to the work place compromise the ability for people or the plant to achieve key business objectives[2]?

2. Based on significance:

  1. If the answer is no to all of these questions then only a relatively informal process is required – little more than an email to affected parties, with a note to the effect that unless there is a major issue and you reply as such we’re going to implement the change soon. Give a chance for them to reply – don’t send it to someone five minutes before they’re going off for the weekend asking for a response the next morning. If the change is urgent then a phone call with a follow up email is appropriate.
  2. If the answer to any of the questions is yes, then apply some rigour:
  1. Call for input to the formal study on the planned change (eg detailed engineering, Monte Carlo analysis, scope and execution of an external technical consultant, etc) asking for all potentially affected parties (the stakeholders) to provide input.
  2. After the facts are gathered and analysis of requirements made, then run a facilitated group review involving all the stakeholders on the planned change together with any planned business activities that will occur to achieve the change (with a key activity being to capture any concerns or ideas for other activities required).

3. Analysis on significant change will include referring any additional identified project requirements arising from the group review back through the originally applied technical design/analysis process to confirm that the identified points are a value add and don’t introduce other unwanted issues. If an item is not adding valuable advice or is likely to cause a problem then advise the stakeholders (attendees of the formal review).

4. Execute the change, depending on complexity, so that:

  1. Simple changes are conducted in line with site processes (such as Take 5/JSEA[3] level risk considerations.
  2. Complex changes are managed using a project execution plan or similar process to optimise the potential for the completed change to meet or exceed business/site requirements.

5. Conduct close-out communications and ongoing monitoring to suit the level of formality used at step 2 – either a short email or a more formal change debrief meeting to capture lessons learned.

Traps to be alert to

Change management traps or weaknesses to be alert to are:

  1. Trivialising the process – moving a chair in a conference room is not a change that warrants a formal analysis! If functional groups push too hard for use of a complex change management process it will generate misuse of change management by operational teams.
  2. Unfounded optimism by the team members about to make the change – assuming the change is one that doesn’t require formal analysis and just doing the minimum should not be tolerated. The adage of being easier to beg forgiveness than ask for permission isn’t acceptable when gambling with an organisation’s future/license to operate.
  3. Making the first step difficult with a change request form that requires a long time and a lot of detailed thought to complete.  This normally pushes the system into disuse quickly.
  4. Not applying the same process to people and place as is applied to plant and process.  Many organisations have made sweeping changes to their work crews without any formal change management considerations. Similarly, major mine design or site access (work place) changes occur without identifying potential significance before they’re executed.
  5. Not considering the impacts of cumulative change where, although any single change is minor, the effect of many similar changes can cause exposure to a major unwanted incident outcome (the straw that broke the camel’s back is a good analogy for this).
  6. Grabbing someone else’s system and implementing it without considering site requirements.  What works well for a large operation with many technical personnel may not be the right approach for a smaller site with fewer people available to maintain carriage of the system.

Judging where your business/site is at

Some thoughts on what you should take away from this process are to answer the following questions:

  1. Have we used a consistent change management approach in the last three changes on site?
  2. Do we apply the same process to changes in process, plant, people and place?
  3. Will I get the same answer about change management requirements from the Tech Services Manager, Design Engineer, HR Superintendent, Mechanical Engineer, Boilermaker and Electrician?

If you answer ‘no’ to any of these three questions you’ve probably got an exposure to an unwanted outcome from a process, plant, people or place change!


[1] The ideal risk management framework into which the change management system will fit is one that has clear line-of-site from critical controls/required operating states to erosion factors/failure modes which are constrained from acting by control support activities (including fit for purpose processes, plant, people and places to achieve required operating states) – this will greatly improve the ability of the change agent to identify implications more effectively and consistently.

[2] Note that in this sense business objectives are about achieving sustainable (environmentally sound and safe) development (outputs produced).

[3] Take 5 is a checklist-type reminder system for workers.  JSEA (job safety and environmental analysis) is a more formal work team review of a task to identify key activities to implement at each step in the activity – with a sign on by all workers to confirm understanding of requirements.

Share This Article