Transcending a Culture of Continuous Improvement

We’ve been too successful with continuous improvement. Year-on-year, we’ve improved productivity and costs.  We’ve improved on our existing products, making them slightly better and adding features.

Our recipe for success is the same as last year plus three percent. And because the customers liked the old one, they’ll like the new one just a bit more. And the sales for can sell the new one because its sold the same way as the old one.  And the people that buy the new one are the same people that bought the old one.
Continuous improvement is a tried-and-true approach that has generated the profits and mad us successful. And everyone know how to do it.  Start with the old one and make it a little better. Do what you did last time (and what you did the time before.)
The trouble is that continuous improvement runs out of gas at some point. Each year it gets harder to squeeze out a little more and each year the return on investment deminishes. And at some point, the same old improvements don’t come. And if they.do, customers don’t care because the product is already better than good enough.
But the bigger problem is that the company no longer knows how to do innovative work. Though there’s recognition it’s time to do something different, the organization doesn’t have the muscles to pull it off. At every turn, the organization will revert to what it did last time and do it the same way as last time.
It’s no small feat to inject new work into a company that has been successful with continuous improvement.  A company gets hooked on the predictable results of continuous which turns into unnatural aversion to all things different.
To start turning the innovation flywheel, many things must change. To start, a team is created and separated from the continuously improving core.  Metrics are changed, leadership is changed and the projects are changed. In short, the people, processes and tools must be built to deal with the inherent uncertainty that comes with new work.
Where continuous improvement is about the predictability of improving what is, innovation is about the uncertainty of creating what is yet to be. And the best way I know to battle uncertainty is to become a learning organization.  And the best way to start that journey is to create formal learning objectives.
Define what you want to learn but make sure you’re not trying to learn the same old things. Learn how to create new value  for customers; learn how to deliver that value to new customers; and learn how deliver that new value in new ways (new business models,)
If you’re learning the same old things in the same old way, you’re not doing innovation.

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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