If you have a quality management system in place, demonstrating continuous improvement is a requirement.  In theory this is great.  In practice, not so much.  The first problem I’ve observed is that what many organizations call continuous improvement, really isn’t.  I see corrective action, repairs, problem solving, risk mitigation and a host of other activities described as continuous improvement.  Generally speaking, they aren’t.  Fixing things and solving problems just returns you to the previous level of performance that was in place before the issues occurred.  This isn’t improvement, it is maintenance.  For analogy, let’s say you get a flat tire on your vehicle and repair it.  This just returns it to normal functionality. That is, the vehicle performs the same as before the flat.  Do you consider this a performance improvement? I don’t. 

The second problem I observe with continuous improvement is that the approach is often to try to improve everything, everywhere, all at once.  I’ve been to companies where they proudly show me all the improvement projects that are ongoing, sometimes upward of 50!  I then have to point out that some of the projects have been open for 2-3 years.  Opening a bunch of projects but not completing them doesn’t improve anything.  Additionally, a bunch of local/departmental improvements don’t typically produce the overall expected system (e.g. improved profitability) improvements.  In fact, I have seen improvements in one area negatively impact another area yielding a net zero, or worse, net negative impact.  I’ll have more to say about this in a future post.

A third shortcoming of continuous improvement is the practice of trying to do what you are already doing better and/or faster.  This typically provides only incremental improvements and eventually just doesn’t work as the law of diminishing returns takes over. As an alternative, Russ Ackoff promoted “discontinuous improvement”.  Dr. Joseph Juran spoke of the same concept in terms of “breakthrough improvement”.  This is how you achieve truly meaningful improvement.  But this requires a completely different mindset and very few companies really embrace it because of the perceived risk.  It may require you to do something that no one has done before.  But you can’t leapfrog over your competition by just doing more of the same or “benchmarking” against someone else. Discontinuous/breakthrough improvements happens more sporadically but in much larger chunks.  I think the following is an example that everyone can relate to.  Consider your current job and salary.  An annual raise, typically very small on a percentage basis, is analogous to continual improvement.  But most people consider it safe to keep the same job and rely on that little bump each year to “improve” their livelihoods.  But, what if you put in some extra effort, and money, to further your education or learn a new skill and then apply for new job?  This could lead to a new job, perhaps in a completely different industry and a significant (50%?  75%?  100%?) increase in pay.  This would be a breakthrough improvement.  These same kinds of gains can be realized in productivity and profitability for a company if they focused more on discontinuous improvement.

In order for this approach to work, you have to think bigger and differently. You have to take some risks.   Going back to the flat tire analogy, an example of real improvement regarding reducing the occurrence of flat tires would be to create tires that don’t go flat.  There are real world examples of this already.  But an even better solution would be no need for tires.  And the really out there (to some), but better still, solution would be no need for a car at all. 

Don’t continuously improve,