Continuous Improvement: Will it Put Manufacturing Ahead or Behind?

InnovationAlthough the Kaizen mindset and practices are what transitioned Japanese manufacturing from loser to leader, the positive outcomes associated with continuous improvement are currently being called into question.

Specifically, in relation to innovation.

This assertion may sound absurd to some. After all, continuous improvement has become a cornerstone of U.S. manufacturing, too. But one needs to look no further than to the culture required for innovation to understand why some organizational experts are suggesting it may be time for a re-think. Or, more precisely, why it may be time to figure out how Kaizen and innovation can co-exist.

While the culture required for lean practices is, of course, a culture under constant scrutiny for inefficiency and poor quality, the culture required for innovation is a culture that seemingly embraces inefficiency and poor quality as part of the creative process. In fact, leaders within organizations attempting to establish a reputation for innovation are often criticized as being far too results and bottom-line focused to support true innovation, a process which, by definition, must include non-judgment and failure as foundational concepts.

According to a July 2013 Forbes article, Why Continuous Improvement May Need to be Discontinued:


“…iconic six sigma companies in the United States, such as Motorola and GE, have struggled in recent years to be innovation leaders. 3M, which invested heavily in continuous improvement, had to loosen its sigma methodology in order to increase the flow of innovation. As innovation thinker Vijay Govindarajan says, “The more you hardwire a company on total quality management, [the more] it is going to hurt breakthrough innovation. The mindset that is needed, the capabilities that are needed, the metrics that are needed, the whole culture that is needed for discontinuous innovation, are fundamentally different.”


What makes this statement particularly potent is that most of us working in and with manufacturing know that we need both efficiency and innovation for sustainable success. To put it more bluntly, we are actually in desperate need of both. We need a mindset, capabilities and metrics that keep quality high and fresh ideas flowing.

All this points to two critical questions:

Are continuous improvement and innovation practices so mutually exclusive that no point of intersection exists?

If there was a Venn diagram describing this new universe in which the bottom line is bolstered by both efficiency and out-of-the-box thinking, what exactly is in that intersection?

The author of the Forbes piece suggests three actions that might prevent organizations from being forced to choose between continuous improvement and innovation (we’ve listed them, but you can also read the article here):

  • Customize how and where continuous improvement is applied.
  • Question whether processes should be improved, eliminated or disrupted.
  • Assess the impact on company culture.

Although the author uses manufacturing examples exclusively in the article’s opening paragraphs, he also has this to say under his rationale for the first bullet above: “One size of continuous improvement doesn’t fit all parts of the organization. The kind of rigor required in a manufacturing environment may be unnecessary, or even destructive, in a research or design shop.”

While we understand why he makes this distinction, the statement still concerns us – especially after spending the last few months focused on Ro Khanna’s book, Entrepreneurial Nation – Why Manufacturing is Still Key to America’s Future, which was, in large part, a manifesto calling for greater innovation in U.S. manufacturing.

As we said above, industry is in dire need of both continuous improvement practices (lean manufacturing, Kaizen, Six Sigma, etc.), as well as those that support innovation. If we believe that anything other than rigorous quality and cost control is dangerous in the manufacturing arena, we risk blinding ourselves to what may need to be re-examined for American manufacturing to reach its full potential; we risk not seeing what might be in the intersection of that Venn diagram for us.

At EFI Group, we practice lean principles and lean project management. Yet, by the very nature of what we do for our manufacturing clients, we are also responsible for helping them create a culture that’s primed to innovate. As all of us get deeper into this discussion of continuous improvement vs. innovation, we’ll be interested to hear your perspective, too.

Do you think continuous improvement is an obstacle to innovation?

How have you implemented continuous improvement practices
while still making room for the often messy process of innovation?

How might innovation in manufacturing be increased
through the application of continuous improvement principles?

How do you make innovation a real possibility
while still minding your bottom line?

We invite you to share your thoughts in a comment to this post and we look forward to a robust discussion.

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