The Kurt Lewin three-step model change theory, Unfreeze the current behaviours and processes, make the changes you need, then practice and freeze the new behaviours and practices into everyday actions.
Introduction to the change model
The Kurt Lewin, change theory model, is based around a 3-step process (Unfreeze-Change-Freeze) that provides a high-level approach to improvement. It gives a manager or other change agent a framework to implement a change effort, which is always very sensitive and should be as seamless as possible.
The Kurt Lewin change theory or model can help a leader do the following three steps:
- Make a radical change (innovation)
- Minimise the disruption of the structure’s operations
- Make sure that the amendment is adopted permanently
Summary of Kurt Lewin’s Change theory
This three-step model gives a manager or change agent an idea of what implementing change means when dealing with people. The 3 phases of the Kurt Lewin model guide how to go about getting people to change. A manager will implement new processes and re-assign tasks. But change will only be effective if the people involved embrace it and help to put it into practice it.
Lewin change model – Unfreeze – “ready to change.”
When a structure has been in place for a while, habits and routine have naturally settled in. The organisation as a whole is going in the right direction. But, as shown in the illustration, people or processes may have strayed off course. For example, tasks that are not relevant or useful anymore are still being performed by force of habit, without anyone questioning their legitimacy. Similarly, people might have learned to do things one way, without considering other, more efficient methods. Unfreezing means getting people to gain perspective on their day-to-day activities, unlearn their bad habits, and open up to new ways of reaching their objectives. The current practices and processes have to be reassessed for the wheels of change to be set in motion.
Lewin change model – Change – “implementation.”
Once team members have opened up their minds, change can start. The change process can be a very dynamic one and, if it is to be effective, it will probably take some time and involve a transition period. To gain efficiency, people will have to take on new tasks and responsibilities, which entails a learning curve that will look at first slow the organisation down. A change process has to be viewed as an investment. This process is both in terms of time and the allocation of resources. After the new organisation and procedures have been rolled out, inevitable chaos might ensue, but that is the price to pay to attain enhanced effectiveness within the structure.
Lewin change model – Freeze (sometimes called refreeze)- “making it stick.”
The change will only reach its full effect if it’s made permanent. Once the organisational changes have been made and the structure has regained its effectiveness, every effort must be made to cement them and make sure the new organisation becomes the standard. Further changes will be made down the line. Still, once the structure has found a way to improve the way it conducts its operations, “re-freezing” will allow the people to thrive in the new organisation and take full advantage of the change. Many quote the model as saying the third step of this approach is to re-freeze when in Lewin’s original work it was “freeze”.
In 1947 Lewin wrote:
A change towards a higher level of group performance is frequently short-lived, after a “shot in the arm”, group life soon returns to the previous level. This indicates that it does not suffice to define the objective of planned change in group performance as the reaching of a different level. Permanency of the new level, or permanency for a desired period, should be included in the objective.
Source – “Frontiers in Group Dynamics” Lewin (1947) – Note many quote this from 1951, but it was published earlier in 1947
See our page on the stop, start, continue change as a way of implementing the Lewin model.
This Lewin change model is one of 400+ models available for download
First published 21 Jan 2010 – Reviewed July 2014
The Kurt Lewin change theory is as valid today as it was when it was first communicated. Many in the Organizational change space think the model or theory is outdated. This, to me, shows a lack of understanding of the model and its intent.
The difference is that change is now almost a constant, but for social reforms in behaviour, people do need to learn to change habits and routines. Using the three steps provides PEOPLE with a framework to work towards.