Innovation and continuous improvement

Promote innovation to strengthen your company.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, innovation is a new idea, method, device, or novelty. It is also the introduction of something new.  In this competitive world, innovation is crucial to the success of any organization.  Therefore, one way to strengthen the company is to promote innovation.  

Innovation and the company culture

An article in Harvard Business Review describes the behaviors exhibit by the most innovative organizations. Scott D. Anthony, Paul Cobban, Rahul Nair, and Natalie Painchaud are the authors of that piece.   The article, Breaking Down the Barriers to Innovation, explains them in detail.  Those behaviors are the following.

  1. Always assume there is a better way to do things. 
  2. They focus on deeply understanding customers’ stated and unstated needs and desires. 
  3. Collaborate across and beyond the organization, actively cross-pollinating. 
  4. Recognize that success requires experimentation, rapid iteration, and frequent failure. 
  5. They empower people to take risks, voice dissenting opinions and seek needed resources.

These five actions or attitudes are aligned with a continuous improvement culture.  

Innovation in a continuous improvement culture

A tenet of continuous improvement is to respect the people.  One way is by providing the environment and opportunities to learn new skills.  In other words, the team is empowered to improve their workplace. They would do it through innovation and continuous improvement.  

The ultimate goal of continuous improvement is perfection.  That is to say that you always assume that there is another way to do things. Precisely, that is the first behavior in the article.  Other behaviors listed are collaboration, seeking improvements through experimentation, and learning from mistakes. All of them are part of a continuous improvement environment.

One of the CI principles is customer value.  The customer is who defines value.  Value definition is a critical piece to start your continuous improvement quest. For instance, you will use it to classify each process as value-added or non-value-added. Moreover, you need to understand it to focus your innovation efforts on the right place  

A CI culture is people-based. The focus is to create an environment that promotes learning and growth. When the company is mature enough, team members do not have to deal with repetitive problems. Therefore they don’t have to deal with the frustration that comes with them either.  A mind free of work concerns and frustration is a mind ready to create and innovate! 

Innovation and continuous improvement

Some people think that continuous improvement or lean conflicts with innovation.  In other words, that lean kills innovation.  However, that is not true both go hand in hand.  Let’s see how.

The power of innovation within continuous improvement

One critic about continuous improvement that I heard often is that the structure does not allow creativity.  CI indeed organizes the thinking process and has some core elements that are not negotiable.  On the other hand, it promotes skills development as a way to show respect.  And it is there where the innovation power of lean or continuous improvement resides.

How it works

To be able to empower your team, you need to develop the skills they need.  Hand-on training to learn the tools is not enough to succeed.  Self-discipline to behave and think the continuous improvement way is critical.  The structure provided by tools like PDCA and 5S helps to build that discipline.   

For example, the traditional way to solve problems is by using past experiences to guess the best solution.  But with PDCA, you have to define the problem by going where the problem happens to see for yourself, ask questions, and gather data.  It also uses promotes a team approach.  Various minds working together enriches both the problem definition and countermeasures identification.  

The most important lesson of PDCA occurs at the end of the process.  During the last step, act or adapt, you verify if the actions taken solved the problem.  It also encourages you to reflect upon the results, what work, and what didn’t.  The discussion of the lessons learned opens the gates of innovation by opening minds to endless opportunities.


Reflection generates learning by making us look at our actions and their consequences.  Doing this requires looking at assumptions and reactions while examining the lessons learned.   The act of reflecting upon our actions also help to develop creative thinking skills.  

Once your mind starts to question how things work or how you can do it better, you will keep looking for answers.  Curiosity is the source of invention.  Being curious about things keeps your mind sharp on what happens or not.  Being curious opens your eyes to new ideas.

Engagement and innovation 

Boredom is a leading indicator of engagement.  Doing the same thing every day is boring.  And boredom kills engagement and consequently innovation.  They have time to think about how much they don’t like their work and start looking for a new one.  On the other hand, if they feel that their skills are valued and can visualize themselves growing with the company, their engagement increases.

One tenet of continuous improvement is to respect the people.  One way to show respect is to provide the environment and opportunities to learn new skills.  Being able to contribute to the company’s future in a meaningful way is a great motivator.  It will not only improve their work performance but also their attitude towards life.  A team member that finishes the workday feeling good about it will arrive home with much better humor.  Therefore, family time will be as rewarding and positive as it should be.

A mind free of work concerns and frustration is a mind ready to create and innovate!


CI does not restrict thinking.  On the contrary, it provides a way to standardize routine tasks, allowing time and energy to use their talents and creativity.  When they have the power to change and improve their workplace, they will engage in finding ways to improve.  With self-discipline, they will pursue daily small improvement steps.  With each step, their curiosity will grow.  And with it, the appetite for asking why and getting answers with data will grow as well.  As a result, they will have breakthrough ideas, new concepts, and ways to do things.  Curiosity is the source of invention. It is not a matter of whether innovation will happen, but when.