Kurt Lewin 3 Phases Change Theory
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Change Management

Is Kurt Lewin change theory relevant to change management in the 21st century? Yes, and companies benefit from understanding it

Kurt Lewin change theory and Lewin's three step model are very much a significant part of change management strategies for managing change in the workplace in the 21st century. This change management model was developed during the 1940's and the concept of 'Unfreezing-Transition-Freezing' still remains very relevant today.

Below, from the perspective of a change management consultant I explain this change management model, 'the 3 phases model', and how it works today as a key part of business improvement and successful organizational change initiatives.

Kurt Lewin 3 Phases Change Management Model

Kurt Lewin's change management model is a fantastic change model for understanding the basic concepts of a straight-forward change management process.

Kurt Lewin

As a business improvement and change management consultant globally for more than 10 years, I can say that Lewin's three step model of unfreezing transitioning and freezing has been in some way apart of most change management projects that I have been involved with. However whilst we are going through the change management process we do not tend to specifically refer to Kurt Lewin's three step model or refer to Kurt Lewin 3 phases, and so on...

Lewin's Three Step Change Model Phases are:

Unfreeze: Reducing the forces that are striving to maintain the status quo, and dismantling the current mind set. Usually by presenting a provocative problem or event to get people to recognize the need for change and to search for new solutions.

Transition: Developing new behaviors, values, and attitudes, sometimes through organizational structure and process changes and development techniques. There may be a period of some confusion as we move from the old ways of doing things to the new.

Freeze: The final stage of crystallizing and the adaptation of ownership of the new 'as is'. The organization may revert to former ways of doing things at this point unless the changes are reinforced through freezing.

For a real and relevant example of this change theory, and to see why I suggest it is still so much a part of business improvement and change management programs, and relevant to your business today, take a look at this Continental Airlines video below.

This video provides a excellent demonstration of the Kurt Lewin methods theories and change model in action. It demonstrates how it works and the benefits of Kurt Lewin 3 phases theory put in practice.

Continental Airlines
from the Poorest Performing Airline to Airline of The Year

Use Kurt Lewin's Change Model in Change Management Implementations

The challenge when reviewing a change management model like this is being able to picture yourself implementing it a real world situation, using the change model in your business today. One of the purposes of showing the Continental Airlines video above is that I hope that is can be useful and helpful for you in that way.

If we were together now working on a project in your workplace how could we best use this approach? As you read through this site, I hope you can think about what is in this change management video and how it could apply in your business.

An important observation and reminder from this video is that to begin the change management process you must begin by creating and awareness and an understanding for why the change must take place. Build awareness for the pressure for change to come to the surface.


How do we unfreeze an organisation? Typically a provocative problem or event needs to be presented to people to get them to recognize the need for change and to search for new solutions. This problem or event is the catalyst that creates the pressure for movement of attitude or thinking, and for change to occur. And key to this unfreezing catalyst is communication.

Two examples are:

By doing attitude surveys of all staff, it may show management that moral is quite low and that as a result of this low morale the risk to safety is quite high. This may influence a manager who has been resisting change to begin to take action.

Similarly when information is being delivered to the field, but then negative events in the field are continuing to occur, this may convince management that the message is not being heard and some required changes are in order.

During the unfreezing step generally most staff and management are willing to change. Those that are not usually require something meaningful to provoke them to change their attitude. These two examples above demonstrate that there are many positive and constructive ways to do that.

Kurt Lewin's model suggests that one of the best ways to motivate people to change is to first get people to see the need for change. Even when a change if for the persons long term health benefits such a ceasing a bad destructive habit, few people ever change because someone else tells them to. People generally need to see for themselves the need for change, for the catalyst to occur, to provoke them to "unfreeze".

Educating employees in regards the pressures for change is a first step.

Following on from that leaders can begin to highlight gaps between the current and desired states and present a vision as it needs to be. Then further begin to convey the change in terms of specific outcomes that the company expects from the operation and employees and their confidence and belief that these changes are possible.

The existing system needs to be broken down before a new way of operating can be installed.

As change agents the goal at this stage is to create a strong reaction. To get the relevant staff and management involved and examining the status quo. To create an upsetting of the apple cart, where people are forced to seek out a new and better way to do things. To re-set the normal order of things to new heights and standards.

Tips to Unfreeze

  • Change cannot be change for change sake but change because compelling information about the business, market or product or so on is telling us this is necessary. Do the analysis to determine what change is required. Internal research, market data, etc. Build an understanding.

  • Break down the existing status quo before developing a new way of doing things. "Break the failing system while maintaining order" - watch the Continental Airlines video above.

  • Compel people to understand and know the old ways cannot continue and use prior poor outcomes as references to this old status quo. Get the message out. The who, what, when, where, how, and why changes and improvements are required.

  • Maintain regular and frequent communication lines open with all employees. Have an open door policy from the leadership group that allows employees in to discuss concerns and such can help eliminate barriers to change and fears in terms of directing the need to change.

  • Remain open and honest with feedback to staff and continue to build cohesiveness among the groups affected.

  • Build a guiding coalition and support from management and understand and pay attention to the needs of stakeholders.

  • Transition

    During the transition phase we aim to shift or alter the behavior of the individual, departments, or organization in which the changes are taking place.

    People are at this stage looking for new and better ways to do things. The behavior may initially be mechanical but they are starting to perform and behave in ways that support the new direction.

    This process can be lengthy and almost certainly will not happen in a matter of just a few days. It will take time for people to feel comfortable and start to act in ways that are supporting the change initiative. There may be some mayhem and confusion at this point though with a properly structured approach to the change this can be managed well.

    Once people begin to see how the change is benefiting them, the company and those around them, they will begin to take ownership in the change and drive it. However we must not as leaders and change agents take for granted that everybody will be the same. Some people even though they themselves can see the benefit for the business and its people, may still create difficulties and may have to be removed. Unfortunately this is a fact of business life.

    During this transition phase be prepared to deal with people who benefit from not changing. For them the best situation is the status quo.

    Have plenty of time and plenty of communication. People need time to take things in and through the continual communication they will feel more involved and connected to the process.

    It will benefit the project and is great for leaders and the change initiators to get out in the field and talk and be apart of the people's approach. This aspect is part of what makes a good leader.

    Tips for Transition

  • Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.

  • Involvement, Involvement, Involvement.

  • Immediately address any barriers of negative people, and keep things real and coming back to how it relates to the business and the need for change.

  • Provide empowerment for people that is matched to consequences, and their readiness to change.

  • Make use of milestones and measurements.

  • Be open to continual negotiation.

  • Freeze

    When the people, structure, and strategy elements all seem okay, when things are looking well, it is time to lock things in. We act here to make sure that the improvements stick and this is the freezing phase. We continue here until the changes become the 'way we do things around here'.

    Kurt Lewin's three step model assumes that organizations tend to revert to there former ways of doing things unless the changes are reinforced. Kurt Lewin's model requires a process be in place that supports and maintains the changes. This may include things such as new employee performance appraisal systems and reward systems to influence those to adhere to the firm's new values.

    These aspects are also referred to and supported in John Kotter's leading change model such as in "John Kotter Error 5, not removing obstacles to the new vision". This is very important point because it reinforces that to sustain change, to freeze, something has to be in place to maintain it. This may mean removing existing business systems and structures, etc that are now clearly inconsistent with the new 'as is'.

    Importantly, in recognizing that we continually change, this stage of freezing may only be temporary in a continually improving environment. But freezing is still necessary in the continuity of operations. It is necessary before moving on to the next stage of unfreezing again. This is because freezing eliminates confusion for people who may not be sure of what needs to be done if things were not locked in to become standard operating procedure (at least temporarily).

    Another benefit of freezing is that even though it may just be temporary, we have confirmed the need to improve and become more compelled when the pressure for change builds again.

    Tips to Freeze

  • Be sure to recognize and celebrate success as a standard part of the change process.

  • Use force-field analysis to identify and eliminate barriers to the change sticking, whilst maintaining a forward looking focus on the new installations.

  • Establish performance and reward systems for monitoring the influencing the change consistency.

  • Maintain regular review meetings with key staff and adapt the organisations meeting structure and agenda's to support the improved status and processes.

  • Train personal where necessary and invite continued involvement in the processes.

  • One of the great instruments of implementation success, the Kurt Lewin Change Management Tool that helps bring it all together. Force field analysis (Kurt Lewin force field analysis) is used in project implementations for positioning. To help determine what aspects of the business are supporting the project, and what are the issues and forces working against it. It's also great for using is actions-output focused meetings.

    Summary of Kurt Lewin Change Theory

    The Kurt Lewin model was developed to summarize what Kurt Lewin believed were the basic steps in good planned change.

    In summary the Kurt Lewin model demonstrates that to move an organization from point A to point B first we should create compelling and motivating reasons to change (unfreeze). Then implement and install the necessary changes (transition) to the way we wish for things to be. Then aim to stabilize the operation (freeze) at a better and /or higher level of performance.

    This model works whether the changes are strategic and incremental or reactive or anticipatory change.

    There is a very broad selection of strategies for managing change in the workplace that management can select from to achieve successful organizational change. The Kurt Lewin three step model provides an outline that assists us to visualize, plan and manage each of the stages of change.

    As a management consultant I see each stage of the Kurt Lewin change theory as being able to be planned, as implementable, and as auditable for achieving successful change management program implementation and business improvement results.

    Change Management Consultant

    Have you read over this Kurt Lewin change management model and reviewed the other change management theories, tools and strategies for managing change in the workplace available on this site? If so, then you have a very good foundation for achieving successful organizational change. You can do it.

    If you're not feeling quite confident enough to take on these activities, not sure where to start, perhaps short of physical resources, or for any other reason click here to find a contact form.

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    Summary of Kurt Lewin - Links and Useful Resources

    Summary of Kurt Lewin - Biography of Kurt Lewin

    Kurt Lewin Center for Psychological Research - Home Page

    The Kurt Lewin Institute (KLI) in the The Netherlands - Home Page

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