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January 1, 2010

Is it Time to Rethink Continuous Improvement?

A recent Harvard Business Review blog post by Ron Ashkenas said that “It’s Time to Rethink Continuous Improvement."

We can think of a couple of common sense reasons for this right immediately:

  1. Not every area must continually improve for a company to be effective.
  2. The overhead of energy spent improving needs to be taken into account.
  3. The disruption and energy required to make a change in the corporate culture towards continuous improvement.

Ashkenas writes about the failing fortunes of Japanese firms that pioneered continuous improvement processes, and similar struggles in the American companies that copied them most thoroughly, as examples of how 'continuous improvement' is not a foolproof way to keep your company relevant. However, he gives three ways to nuance your approach. These are quite similar to the common sense responses that we mentioned above:

  1. "Customize how and where continuous improvement is applied.” – As mentioned above, not every area must continually improve for a company to be effective.
  2. "Question whether processes should be improved, eliminated, or disrupted.” – The overhead of energy spent improving needs to be taken into account, but you should ask the more fundamental question of whether the process you would improve needs to exist in the first place, or if you can improve the process by taking unnecessary bits out of the process entirely rather than streamlining them.
  3. "Assess the impact on company culture.” - Culture, whether it is company, national, or personal, affects a whole lot. You can read our previous articles: Vision, Mission, Values: What about behaviors?, and Creating a Third Cultural Space: Part I for examples. Whether a continuous improvement program like KaizenSix Sigma, or Lean will work in your company depends on the national, corporate, and personal cultures involved.

At KnowledgeWorkx, continuous improvement can means disruptive innovation, but it can also mean changes that slot into previous processes and services with incremental improvement.

As a company where knowledge is key, the biggest changes we can make for internal process improvement are almost all related to streamlining our ideas ideas and thought processes, as well as our communication processes. We weigh each change against the disruption it will cause – but only informally, because it would take too much time for us to do a formal investigation of every idea for process improvement. And we look for improvement in our company culture itself, not just processes.

Mr. Ashkenas’ article got us thinking, and I am sure you will see more from us on this topic in the future!

Josh Penman is KnowledgeWorkx' Communications & Technology Manager. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

KnowledgeWorkx is an international consulting firm that specializes in intercultural intelligence, and integrates Consulting, Coaching, and Learning & Development for holistic solutions.

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