Improve Processes, Improve Innovation

Equally Critical: Process Improvement and Novelty Must Work Together

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What's the difference between process improvement and innovation?

Improvement assumes that you have an existing product, program, process or object of interest and you want to deliver more or better results. The challenge here is to make that object better so that it delivers more value.
Ben Nneji is president of SigmaWorks Group. He previously was VP-marketing and group CRM leader at GE Capital.
Ben Nneji is president of SigmaWorks Group. He previously was VP-marketing and group CRM leader at GE Capital.

Everett Rogers, in his book, "Diffusion of Innovations," defines innovation as "an idea, practice or object that is perceived as new by an individual" or whoever else would use, consume or adopt the innovation.

While process improvement focuses on improving an existing idea, practice or object, innovation focuses on "newness." But they both focus on bringing desirable change.

Same coin
Because process improvement is focused on making existing objects better, it is traditionally perceived as not being innovative or creative. And for those who pride themselves as being creative and innovative, there is no challenge or creativity in process improvement. It is sexier to look at the unknown and to work on the outer frontiers of what is known to come up with something entirely new.

But process improvement and innovation are really opposite sides of the same coin. The ability of a marketer to deliver sustained competitive value is determined by both the "head" of innovation and the "tail" of process improvement.

Innovation brings in new streams of value; process improvement provides the back-end insurance that the innovations achieved will continuously deliver competitive value.

GE is a good example of a company that benefited from a focus on process improvement through its Six Sigma programs. Over time, it found that creativity and innovation were not getting the attention they deserved. CEO Jeff Immelt is now using Ecomagination to heighten focus on innovation.

Strike a balance
3M, meanwhile, traditionally focused on innovation, but with time became bloated and inefficient.To improve upon its performance, 3M hired James McNerney from GE to run the company; he used the Six Sigma discipline to whip 3M into shape. Mr. McNerney exited the company in 2005 to run Boeing, and new 3M CEO George Buckley is reinstating the traditional innovative culture, which many argue suffered as a result of Mr. McNerney's focus on process improvement.

The bottom line is this: Striking a balance between innovation and process improvement is critical. Without such a balance, performance will suffer.
So how do you instill a process improvement mind-set -- while maintaining a creative and innovative culture? It's not all that hard, if you follow five rules:


Illustrations 2, 4 by Scott Dunlap; 1, 5 by Tom Nulens
To be an organization that is creative, innovative and welcomes process improvement, you must nurture a culture of disruption, in which you challenge everything: long-accepted ways of working, successful products, effective working processes, management philosophy, current innovations.

By encouraging disruption, you seed more innovation and creativity within your organization and continuously improve on what you have. Disruption allows you to leave your comfort zone to either see the same thing differently or see different things the same.

Your organization needs to look at what works elsewhere and duplicate it. Recycle a concept, an idea, a product or process.

This recycle rule is in force when companies use best practices to innovate their work processes or products. They transport an idea to meet a business need. Several companies have gone to Disney to learn how to deliver great customer service, though they are in a totally different line of work. The principles, policies and processes they found in Disney can be recycled in their environment to drive the improvements and innovations they need to be more competitive.

Some people may call this the power of focus; I call it the power of one. Each company is unique and needs to find its competitive edge. You may have multiple business objectives, but you must drive clarity on your singular purpose.

For Starbucks, it is the ambience created in its stores that makes customers want to belong. For FedEx, the power of one is in its promise that your package is guaranteed to arrive the next day, unfailingly.

The GREAT process is an acronym that means that you have: a) Guidelines for action; b) clearly defined Roles; c) a method for capturing your Extra concerns; d) an agreed-to Agenda for your program; and e) a Timeline for achieving your objectives.

Use AIM to achieve both your innovation and process-improvement goals as you a) Assess the current situation; b) develop and Implement solutions that will meet your objectives; then c) Measure and track performance so that you continuously improve.

To be effective in implementing this GREAT AIM technique, use a team-solution approach. You set up several empowered teams with clear guidelines, clearly defined roles and an agenda with timelines for delivering your innovation and process-improvement goals.

Under this continuous improvement framework for both innovation and process improvement, celebrate successes and failures. Celebrate failures because it shows you what does not work so that you can adjust and get things to work better.

And punish inaction because without movement one way or the other, we never innovate or improve anything. To innovate or to improve your process, you must demand and reward action. Any action is better than endless contemplation and delays. The graveyards for companies that met an untimely death are littered with mounds of inaction and tombstones marked, "We will do it later."
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