Discontinuous Improvement at the Expense of Continuous Improvement

Five percent here, three percent there. I’m tired as hell of continuous improvement. Sure there’s a place for it, but it shouldn’t be the only type of work we do. But, unfortunately, that’s just what’s happened in manufacturing. To secure the balance sheet, the pendulum swung too far toward continuous improvement. Just look at what we’re writing about – the next low cost country, shorter lead times, how to be profitable where there’s no profit to be had. Those topics scream continuous improvement – take nickels and dimes out of processes to increase profits. But there’s a dark side to all this focus on continuous improvement.  It has created a big problem: it has come at the expense of discontinuous improvement.

Continuous improvement is a philosophy of minimization with a focus on cost and waste reduction, while discontinuous improvement is a philosophy of maximization with a focus on creation of new markets through product innovation. As of late, we’ve minimized waste at the expense of invention and innovation. I propose we flip this on its head and maximize through discontinuous improvement at the expense of continuous improvement. That’s right; I said do less lean and Six Sigma.

But we must ask ourselves if we’re capable of doing discontinuous improvement. Remember, we ignored or dismantled our innovation engines over the last years. And what about our big thinkers, our creative thinkers, our innovators? Do they still work for us, or have they just stopped talking about big ideas? I urge you to answer that question because your next actions depend on it.

If your innovative thinkers are gone, go out and hire the best you can find ASAP. If you were fortunate enough to retain your big thinkers, congratulations. Now it’s time to get the band back together, but first you’ve got to do some reconnaissance to ferret them out of their hiding places. Once you find them, invite them to a nice lunch – the nicer the better. Don’t push too hard at lunch, just start to  get reacquainted. In time you’ll get to talk about their ideas on new technologies and how to create new markets.

It will be difficult to get your company swing the pendulum away from continuous improvement, but you must try. Without discontinuous improvement your company will be destined to wrestle for nickels using lean and Six Sigma.

4 Responses to “Discontinuous Improvement at the Expense of Continuous Improvement”

  • I see your point Mike. Continuous improvement is a tactical approach and works well at improving existing practices and processes. The focus on lean / six sigma improvements assumes that the market and products to serve it are the same as they were three years ago and we can do what we have always done, just do it better. This does not prepare a firm for the future by creating new markets and innovating. My niche is strategic planning and how to link your vision of the future with business process improvements that make it possible to achieve. Organizational development is very important in this economy, especially the ability to move quickly and flexibly to where the demand is.

  • Mike, you are right-on with what you said. Many companies have seen marked improvement with the implementation of lean methodologies. So much so…in some cases…that the success blinds them to market competition. Staying reliant on existing products with some age on them, and focusing on leaning the hell out of the process to get them to market, will keep you focused on the wrong thing. Lean is a good thing for removing waste wherever you find it, but it’s a bad thing when you use it to Band-Aid an inefficient-to-manufacture design. Use the last product, and its inherent manufacturing inefficiencies as a springboard to your next effort and take a lesson! If your competition is doing this and you are not, you’d better be content on letting them take the lead.

  • Debora Demers:

    Mike and others,
    Change and innovation via connection with the outside environment and learning is one of the cornerstones of a learning organization. The literature addressing organizational learning / learning organization / knowledge management is so ubiquitous it’s disappointing that many organizations don’t realize the need for innovation. Continuous improvement, and associated tools/practices certainly are important and have a place in business and manufacturing but as you have all said – it’s not the means to the end.

  • John Taylor:

    It is true that some have lost sight of innovation but much of the past innovation is haphazard or hit and miss, quanity instead of quality. If the focus is on innovation with an eye toward manufacturablility where the process has quality “built in” the gains from process improvment will be less because there is less waste to carve out from the begining. What I have seen from companies is the failure to have an innovative engineer work with a knowledgeable quality engineer that fosters the innovation of the engineer and secures the robustness of the design.

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