For years “continuous improvement” has been the conventional-wisdom tail that wagged the organizational dog. Along the way six sigma belts of many colors were thought to be the change agents on the path to finely tuned processes and increased profits, all of it on the way to a more perfect organization. But now this type of thinking is thought to be somewhat flawed. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Ron Ashkenas, an author and business consultant, says that continuous improvement can be “hazardous” to a corporation’s health. In an age when innovation is prized above almost everything else, continuous improvement doesn’t improve innovation but rather, stifles it. Take a look around and you’ll see that iconic six sigma companies such as Motorola aren’t the innovative leaders they need to be, says he. Of course this isn’t entirely new thinking because six sigma, for example, has been widely criticized for years.
On the other hand, says Ashkenas, rather than completely dispense with the idea of continuous improvement, we should improve on it. And yes, it is an interesting concept that continuous improvement needs to be improved. One way to improve on continuous improvement is to take a more nuanced approach. Inject discipline but not to the point where it drains the creative energy out of the organization. Rather than work on improving processes, ask why these processes exist in the first place. And ultimately, it should be noted that some people like rules while others break rules. Innovation is more often linked to the breaking of rules rather than the following of rules, but without rules there’s anarchy and, well, what’s really needed is common sense. While, many have said that common sense isn’t common, W.C. Field’s once said that horse sense is the thing a horse has that keeps it from betting on people.
- It’s Time to Rethink Continuous Improvement (blogs.hbr.org)