Leaders love progress. Progress is always preceded by change. So you might assume continuous improvement would be a good thing… not always. Many leaders and organizations get lulled into mediocrity by a continuous improvement mindset.
What can be wrong with the desire to continually improve? Nothing - unless it becomes a tacit acceptance of incrementalism. Left unchecked, the advantages of continuous improvement will be quickly overcome by the pitfalls of incrementalism.
Incrementalism rarely creates sustained competitive advantage. Obviously, I don’t know your specific circumstances. However, I’m guessing your competition is looking for breakthrough ideas. If you only pursue small improvements, you will likely fall behind.
Incrementalism can impede innovation. Innovation demands new thinking and new approaches. If we become enamored with the present, we will never see the potential of the future.
Incrementalism will not keep pace with the rate of change in the world. The days of slow and steady are gone. The late Stephen Covey said we now live in a world of perpetual white water.
Incrementalism is often not worth the effort. One of the leaders in our organization has asked me on several occasions, “When is excellence good enough?” It’s a great question. A blind focus on continuous improvement may fail to acknowledge diminishing returns.
If you, or your organization, have fallen victim to the unintended consequences of continuous improvement, you may want to try an exercise called A, B, C… Q. Here’s how it works…
Imagine a product or service, let’s call it A. Brainstorm what an incremental improvement would look like, call that B. Do this again and call your next idea C. Then, rather than envisioning the next iteration, stretch your thinking and skip all the way to Q. Think about what a fundamentally different solution would look like.
Here’s an example:
Consider current practices in an elementary school classroom; let’s call this A.
Continuous improvement might suggest you add smart boards to every classroom = B.
Next, you could add computers to the classroom = C.
Now rather than look for D, pursue Q. What if you change the role of the classroom in the learning process?
That’s exactly what Khan Academy is doing. For those not familiar with Khan, the idea is simply to move the classroom instruction to the home and move the activities traditionally associated with homework to the classroom. This is accomplished with short video lessons available online.
This “flipping the classroom” puts the teacher in the midst of the actual learning process where he or she can assist individual students with specific problems and questions as needed. This solution represents Q. It was not an attempt to incrementally improve the classroom, it was an effort to revolutionalize it.
There are scores, if not hundreds, of techniques you can use to break free from incremental thinking - A, B, C... Q is just one of them. The challenge is not a shortage of tools and techniques. Where incrementalism flourishes, it is most often a shortage of leadership.