Let’s Be Honest About Innovation

gearsFor the last five years, most of my clients — as well as the companies I worked for — have been tightening systems and processes. They have good reasons for doing so. Tighter processes decrease error, they provide a way to leverage best practices across the organization, and – most of all – they increase production by reducing decision points.

At the same time that all this systemization is going on, business has fallen in love with the word innovation. To see the popularity of this concept, all you have to do is look at a few websites or sales brochures — or do a Google search with the words “innovative companies” within quotation marks. You’ll get more than 2 million hits. If everything is to be believed at face value, it would seem that we don’t want to be associated with repeatable processes.

How do we reconcile the two seemingly conflicting approaches? How about we call it like it is? While the most senior people at a firm are tasked with coming up with new revenue streams and new ways to serve the market, at the business end of the stick, where the majority of employees are to be found, we’re looking for continuous improvement, not innovation.

Why We Should Talk About Continuous Improvement
Think of it in this context. What happens when we brag about being innovative as part of an attraction conversation with new recruits — and then they come on board and are promptly told exactly how we want things done and that they must follow the rules. People lose trust very quickly when this happens. What about using the “i” word to attract new clients? Remember that you’re telling customers how innovative you are at the same time that accounting wants to shut down special billing arrangements because they wreak havoc on production times.

Using the words continuous improvement as a way to describe your commitment to doing things better sets realistic expectations for everyone. And it’s easy to come up with the WIIFM factor (what’s in it for me). As an example, continuous improvement means less errors for customers. I don’t know a customer in the world who wouldn’t be attracted by that. Errors are costly and a royal pain. They prevent us from doing the stuff we’d much rather be doing.

Does this mean new ideas are out the window?

Nope. Continuous improvement is most successful in organizations that know their best improvements will come from the rank and file. They have a well-defined process for capturing ideas, listening to the people who came up with them, fleshing out the ideas to see if they’re repeatable in other areas, and finally, the ideas that are selected are implemented in an organized fashion. Toyota calls this Kaizen and has found a way to make this part of their culture.

Continuous improvement sounds boring, right? It works, it’s honest, and it’ll get you the high octane performance we’re all after.

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