Innovation vs Continual Improvement


The traditional definition that you would find in Merriam-Webster dictionary, for instance, shed some light on why innovation is a topic where many points of view exist regarding what it really is. Accordingly to Merriam-Webster, innovation is:
1: the introduction of something new
2: a new idea, method, or device: novelty
In my opinion, this definition is too broad. Most people would not refer to a new product or idea as innovative, just because it’s new. This why I believe it is necessary to better define the scope of this term, at least for the purpose of these articles. In this context, the mere fact of being new is not enough. As we can see, innovation has three characteristics:

1. New. This is the basic criteria. It does not need to be new in the world. It needs to be new in its particular context. In other words, an innovation can be introducing ideas from other industries, other markets, other environments, etc. What is an innovation in an industry or in a market may not be such in a different context.
2. Unexpected. I want to propose that in any particular context, an idea will not be considered innovative unless it is unexpected. A feature in a product that solves a well-known problem, using an approach that is self-evident, will not be looked-at as an innovation. If a feature or characteristic is to be expected, but it was not being delivered, then this would be an improvement. Not an innovation. However, if the way this non-innovative idea is implemented happens to be unexpected, then the approach may be innovative, but the result would still not be an innovation.
3. Relevant. An idea that is new and unexpected, but does not create value, is not difficult to conceive and will not be perceived as an innovation. An innovative concept would always address a need or contribute to an intended goal.


One of my first clashes with reality regarding innovation was when I learned from internationally renowned experts, like Henry Mintzberg, that new better products that build on the existing paradigms could be considered innovation too. A radical, disruptive innovation, like the invention of Compact Disc, happens only rarely.
In principle, this sounds contre-intuitive. The disregard for current ideas and practices may look like the hallmark of innovation. If it builds on the existing product or service, introducing new improved features, but it does not introduce a new outlook that breaks-up drastically with the mindset that lead to the development of the service or product in its current state, then that is just improvement, not innovation. Right? But if an improvement to a product or service can indeed qualify as innovation, then what is innovation and how is incremental innovation different from a simple improvement?


So, what is then the difference between flashy Incremental Innovation and its grey, effective but uninteresting sister, continual improvement? The answer that I want to propose is that the essence of innovation resides in the unexpected quality of the improvement. Continuous improvement introduces enhancements that aim to bring the characteristics of a certain product or service to a defined quality standard. Through different mechanisms, a specific target state has been defined. Continued measurement of the output quality allows to identify variations of output as compared to the target standard. No-conformity reports and corrective actions are then put in place to bring the output to the target state. ISO 9000 set of standards or ITIL’s Continual Service Improvement model, focus on providing the framework and tools for this. This process is known as continual improvement.
This way, operational excellence relies heavily in best practices to ensure a predictable result in a consistent manner. However, standards and best practices are by nature a straitjacket for creativity and innovation. In a certain way and without compensatory measures, they may actually fight innovation. Since the goal is to achieve a predefined target state, then all ideas, even the most creative ones, will be oriented and constrained to the limits of that already established objective. The thinking framework is defined by the desired objective. Thus, by definition, the pursuit of a target state may lead us to it, but will not take us beyond it.
Sometimes an improvement goes beyond a defined expected state, bringing to the customer an additional value that the customer would find useful but did not expect. In some cases, the customer may not even be aware that this was even feasible and could be expected.
This is why improvers will look at what people is doing and would find ways to do it better. They will find a way to do that better. Innovators would look at what people is trying to do. Looking at what people is trying to accomplish, leaves open how to do it and ensures the relevance of any new idea about it. Then, through tools like appreciative inquiry, totally new approaches to achieve it may arise.

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