Continuous improvement and innovation are two different things. The first, for the most part, comes easily if you have the right culture. How about the second?
How do continuous improvement and innovation differ?
I recently spent a 3 hour leadership session with David Hall on The Strategic Role of Creativity in generating innovation. As someone who spends their life facilitating cultures of continuous improvement, what I took away was the difference between innovation and continuous improvement.
Contrary to what many believe, continuous improvement is different to innovation. If it were the same, anyone could constantly innovate! But when we talk about innovation, we are referring to making unusual, clever, or novel changes to your organization.
Now, if continuous improvement and innovation are different, how do they relate to each other? And more importantly, how do we ensure they can work together to help boost your company? In this article, we will explore the differences between continuous improvement and innovation, how the first can promote the second, and why embedding your processes can help you maintain a culture of growth.
The Difference Between Innovation and Continuous Improvement
So, how do continuous improvement and innovation differ? For one, innovation is very much top-down. It’s led from above; it's typically a strategy decision. On the other hand, continuous improvement happens from the bottom up. Everybody can suggest ideas, discuss them, and see whether they offer a chance for progress. If you have the right culture, this type of improvement tends to happen naturally and not because someone gets everyone together to force it to happen.
Representing Improvement and Innovation
The difference between continuous improvement and innovation is easier to see if we use a graphic. Dave Hall draws some staircases. Three, to be precise, drawn on a graph where the x-axis is time and the y-axis is progress.
[image from: The Ideas Centre Group]
On the bottom, we have a shallow staircase, where the steps remain almost horizontal. You are making small changes (for example, frequent and regular improvements that contribute to a longer goal), and eventually, they do amount to something. It is worthwhile doing, but it takes some time to make progress. This represents a low amount of continuous improvement, where you have occasional advances but tend to have a low impact.
In the middle of the graph is the staircase of continuous improvement. The organizations that do best at it are the ones that have lots more little steps in the same amount of time. So their staircase is a lot steeper because they have more steps crammed in. So many so that the steps can turn into a gentle ramp. What this graphic represents is a company that has a culture of continuous improvement, where changes happen constantly.
Lastly, the last staircase is the one of innovation. In it, in addition to the slope of continuous improvement, you also have some steps that suddenly climb up the progress axis to create truly revolutionary advances in a short amount of time.
What this graph show is that continuous improvement and innovation are different beasts. If you want to create innovation, someone needs to make it happen by getting everyone thinking. Continuous improvement however will naturally happen driven by small advances that employees can see. Key to creating a culture of continuous improvement is empowering people to suggest new ideas or even better adopt new approaches.
Innovation will not happen if you continue to always do the same thing or make little improvements over time. The question is, though: How do you actually create a culture of continuous improvement?
Promoting Continuous Improvement
At BeSlick, we want to promote continuous improvement by encouraging people to always provide feedback regarding the projects and procedures in which they are involved. Our goal is to make sure everyone knows what they need to do and how they can do it, but also give them a chance to make things better, too.
Good processes are a way to share standards and practices, but they should be much more than stored documentation. Your processes should permanently be embedded into your business and be part of your business-as-usual activities. That’s how you can create a growth culture that actively fosters innovation.
Our company provides guidance and all the data your organization will need to do a job. We also develop the steps they should follow and ensure the communication is working at all levels of your company. However, if you want to promote continuous improvement, what you actually need to focus the most on is giving people a platform for progress.
Employees and anyone involved in a project should know that they can work within the platform but also suggest changes to it. By enabling teams to work collaboratively, you will be able to increase efficiency and keep everyone engaged - and, of course, give them space to innovate and grow.