Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Lewin Change Model Debate

If you do a Google search for "Lewin change model," you will find many images like the one above.  These models depict Kurt Lewin's Unfreezing-Moving-Refreezing model as 3 sequential steps of equal proportion.  I'll call this viewpoint the (a) rational viewpoint.  It is the way that most of us think of Lewin's model (me included until I read a truly great article by Bernard Burnes - see below).

As Burnes points out, the linear viewpoint is easy to criticize.  He cites a stinging quote from Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who wrote ...

Apparently, Rosabeth is no fan of Kurt Lewin!  She actually has the right criticism, but for the wrong target.  The (a) rational view of Lewin's observations is inaccurate.

Kurt Lewin never depicted his model in the way most of us have come to know the model.  Lewin's viewpoint was really what we call (b) the statistical viewpoint.  If you Google image search the terms "interrupted time series design" you will see what Lewin saw.  He used the terms (1) unfreezing, (2) moving, and (3) refreezing to describe what one sees when looking at production data.

The following excerpt from a special report called The Change Management Secret reveals Lewin's true explanation of the unfreezing-moving-refreezing model.

It is slightly edited for simplicity sake, adding in the two blue dotted lines and the terms unfreezing, Δ, and refreezing.

The average production of the group was 75 units for the two months before the intervention.  For the six months after the intervention, the average production for the group rose to 87 units.  Lewin was simply describing the group behavior as he saw it before, during, and after the change.  Statisticians actually call this type of graphic an interrupted time series design.
<end of excerpt>

Perhaps Lewin's model is not so wildly inappropriate.  What do you think?

Note:  A link to the Burnes article follows the references.


BurnesB. (2004). Kurt Lewin and the planned approach to change: A reappraisal. Journal of Management Studies, 41(6), 977-1002.

Kanter, R. M. (2003).  Challenge or organizational change: How companies experience it and leaders guide it.  New York, NY:  Free Press.

Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics: Concept, method, and reality in social science. Human Relations, 1(1), 5-42.


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