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Can Innovation and Incremental Improvement Co-exist?

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How to Support Exploratory Innovation with Ongoing Improvement

Do you want to improve — or transform?

Is it possible for an organization to successfully focus on both?

As Oliver Steinig, vice president of business development and corporate strategy for Bosch in North America, recently wrote in IndustryWeek, “Incremental innovation still has its place, but it can’t exist purely on its own. The missing partner is fast-paced exploratory innovation.”

Startups, Steinig posits, have become known for driving massive transformation, while larger established companies seek primarily to improve on the way they’ve always done things. In that regard, Bosch has sought to develop a startup mindset. The company seeks to harness the tension of both ongoing improvement and rapid transformation using the company’s Innovation Framework.

We might add, whether your focus is continuous improvement or large-scale transformation, there’s a kaizen for that.

The 4 types of kaizen

While kaizen literally translates to “continuous improvement” and refers to the type of incremental innovation Steinig references, there are actually four kaizen methodologies—and two of them are all about big-time transformation.

  1. Kaizen teian is a bottom-up form of continuous improvement. It encourages every member of the workforce, from leadership to frontline workers, to propose small changes that can improve workflow. This type of kaizen typically drives cultural transformations because it demands everyone think about improvement every day, everywhere.
  2. A kaizen event sets out to improve one specific process over a finite period of time. While daily kaizen projects may be small in scope or somewhat spontaneous, a kaizen event demands thoughtful planning by team leaders. Events might last for days or even weeks and target specific challenges that, once solved, can lead to a step change in efficiency, quality or performance.
  3. Kaikaku is a process to guide an organization through a radical process transformation. Rather than improving a process, kaikaku moves the organization to an entirely new process. For example, kaikaku might mean moving from manual to automated production or moving from paper-based to digital processes.
  4. Kakushin moved an organization to an entirely new way of doing something. Kakushin is all about the big break-through that changes everything. While kaikaku makes a major change in how things are done, kakushin changes what is done. Kakushin demands management challenge their assumptions about why they do business a certain way.

The ultimate success of a transformation may depend upon kaizen—daily continuous improvement—to perfect the new way of working.

A framework for innovation

Steinig offers some additional insight, based upon Bosch’s Innovation Framework, for encouraging transformation:

  1. Innovation is not prescriptive. Develop an approach that works for your organization.
  2. Having a set process is important, but you must be open to updating it regularly.
  3. The ability to quickly validate business ideas only comes from experience, but the work put into gaining that experience has its own tremendous value.
  4. Massive transformation requires leadership buy-in as well as champions who can drive a change through implementation.
  5. Success depends upon early involvement from those individuals who will be impacted by the change.

It’s all good advice, but here at Rever we couldn’t agree more with that final point. Change driven by leadership can be scary for employees. By involving impacted frontline employees early, corporation gain insight that can speed a transformation. In fact, simply having a structure in place to drive massive transformation can help bring frontline employees onboard with next-level innovation. That demonstrates that transformation is part of the culture, and today’s employees are part of that exciting future.

And you’ll need those employees’ input to drive the small, incremental change necessary to fine-tune massive transformation.

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