Improvement or Innovation?

I’ve been on the road for several years now sharing my journey in the world of innovation and some of the lessons i’ve learned along the way. Specifically on the infrastructure an organization puts into place to allow for continuous innovation. I call this the Infrastructure of Design. This blog is not about that, rather it is about one small piece that has triggered many questions and responses. Its the definitions I use to distinguish innovation from improvement. These definitions emerged through years “at it” and the opportunity to play in both worlds, and not from literature. They are practical. So here goes:

You are in the world of improvement when you fundamentally believe that what you have works. Hey you can always make something better, right?

You are in the world of innovation when you fundamentally believe that what you have is broken. (or are stuck on a plateau of non-improvement).

You WANT most of your world to fall in the improvement side of the house. It would be chaotic and expensive if everything were fundamentally broken. In fact you’d probably be out of business. Not everything needs innovating. Some things just need a few tweaks and some focused effort to bring it to the next level. In fact the solution may already be out there. Improvement is cheaper and faster than innovation.

However, SOME things do need innovation. For that a more focused, deeper effort is needed. You may not even know what the real problem is, nor have a clear path to a solution. This is the lovely, inefficient world of innovation. Inefficient because innovation required us to slow down and explore many possible avenues. Inefficient because you WANT innovators to try many ideas and combination of ideas until that magic combo yields a big valuable solution.

There are many organizations that do not separate the two (god love’em) and many that do (god love’em too). There is no right answer as to whether they should be combined or separated. However I, personally, do see great value in separation. Separation allows improvement people to deepen their skills at making the system better, faster. They are the optimizers in our systems.  For the innovators, it allows a deepening of the innovator skill set to tackle the fewer, but more complex challenges. They are the inventors in our systems.

This is not a judgement of ease. Both improvement and innovation are hard work, and each has effective tools and approaches. However it does help to steer organizational challenges to a starting point, knowing full well that they just might end up in the other camp. A good rule of thumb, when in doubt try improvement first.

3 thoughts on “Improvement or Innovation?”

  1. At Via Christi we have intentionally kept the innovation/transformatoin and the process improvement work separate. While we have not articulated the rationale in the concise way that Chris has outlined the separation of the two disciplines(working vs broken)we at Via Christi would agree with this point of view. Additionally, process improvement actions often take place in the heart of the core of operations and often for specific jobs or functions. Innovation/transformation engagement often addresses systems of care and/or highly interdependent groupings of jobs/functions that are not yet defined and/or need “overhauling”. Again, there may be times where there is a fine line but that line does lead to separating the disciplines. Finally, we view inovation/transformation engaging the process improvement team to refine and streamline new work floows and new jobs/functions that have been developed as a result of innovation/transformation. There in lies one of the interdependency for the two areas.


  2. Really appreciate Chris’s experienced based perspective on the topic. A couple of comments based on my and Ascension Health’s experience:
    1) Related to when you need innovation vs incremental improvement – I believe another driver is that innovation is needed when you realize (or your customers realize) that your product or service is just not good enough anymore – which is where I believe healthcare is. It is not necessarily broken as it continues to deliver and make improvements but we all see the opportunity for dramatic improvement.
    2) Related to the separation of improvement vs innovation – early in the work of Ascension Health R&D function we tried to live in both worlds. We found ourselves never having the time or ability to focus on innovation because there were always problems or incremental improvement opportunities which were more pressing and had a shorter-term return. So I am a fan of separation – although it is not always clean.


  3. Nice posting Chris. Here are some of my thoughts learned in the years “at it” by your side doing improvement and innovation work.

    I think of improvement and innovation less about the status of the current state, and more about the availability of proven solutions to address the challenge at hand.

    I believe that improvement occurs when there is an existing solution that has evidence behind it to show that it is “worth spreading,” if you will. In improvement you can have a fundamentally broken system, but still have a proven solution available somewhere within your organization or within your industry that you can nab onto to internalize and optimize (this is where the real art and science of improvement lies) and continue to improve upon.

    I believe in innovation there is a lack of a proven solution that is worth spreading. There just isn’t good evidence to show that one solution or idea is any better than another. To find a solution requires making novel connections from other industries and/or creating solutions of your own which can eventually show a value and an impact on your organization (this is where the real art and science of innovation lies). Once the value is proven out, then it’s a great candidate for improvement because there is a foundation to build upon and make even better. It is then an idea worth spreading and sharing within the world of improvement.

    Looking forward to the other comments.


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