Improving Processes Helps Innovation Efforts

By John Hunter, founder of

One of the criticisms against process improvement is that it requires stifling innovation. That is not accurate. Process improvement is meant to be continual. Building structure around how change is tested and adopted aids innovation, it doesn’t stifle it.

The justified criticism, I have seen, is against bad processes that make change difficult with rigid standards or requirements. It is true that Dr. Deming supported thoughtful process improvement with sensible procedures (for example, testing out changes on a small scale to validate the improvement prior to wide scale adoption of the new method). But process improvement in the Deming context must:

When people think that process improvement effort make innovation difficult they are making several errors. The most prevalent problem is equating efforts that use the terms of process improvement but do the opposite of what process improvement is about. They create a bureaucracy and rules that make change difficult. Ineffective improvement processes (or lack of the processes) can stifle innovation. The problem to address is using the practices poorly not that blaming the concepts for implementations use the terms but not the proper practices.

The other confusion is thinking that process improvement in a factory is going to involve the same things are process improvement in an R&D lab (or software startup, or micro-finance lender, or clothing designer, or hospital).

When looking to improve processes the goal is not to turn a software startup into a factory floor. When looking to improve the ability to more quickly consistently create and deliver software applications the need to to determine how to create processes that will encourage that.

There are a number of problems with creating new products or software that are very different from improving the creation of more products your customers are already using (or even slightly improving products that customers have been using). The process improvements you seek to achieve are based on the needs of that process. If the need of the process is to allow for innovative new products or services then the Deming message is to create and continually improve process that support that aim.

So for software development an example would be creating processes that allow you to creating working software quickly that can be put in users hands early. The practice deals effectively with the huge problem of long delayed software applications. The practice is a good strategy to avoid the problem of the software development process being so long that even if the users had wanted something close to what you wanted when you start by the time you finally deliver they don’t. The practice deals effectively with the problem of users failing to voice their desires properly. The practice deals effectively with problem of you failing to properly understand the users desires. The practice lets you build out the system based on user reactions once they have a working system (which is normally far superior to their projections based on an imagined new system).

That thinking behind creating a system that allows that to happen requires creating process in your organization that support it. If you find processes that are making improvement difficult then those processes need to be examined and eliminated or improved, if sensible.

Occasionally, processes do make it more difficult to do some things that are desired but they provide more value than they cost. In this case we don’t want to optimize one part of the system at a larger cost to the overall system. Still we want to think creatively and try to find ways to achieve the benefits we are receiving while avoiding the costs we must pay. Making these decisions and finding creative solutions isn’t easy. This is where good management practices become critical.

It is easy for organizations to become mired in turf battles, people protecting themselves from risk (even if it hurts the organization), people blaming others for blocking progress, etc.. Good managers and executives dive into these problem areas and do the hard work to make the organization effective. Sadly, far too often, instead people find it easier to explain why things can’t be better, protect their turf and seek to cover themselves from any possible negative results.

Especially, early in moving to an evidence based management culture the process of requiring evidence will leave some complaining about “stifling innovation.” It is an effort to manage the culture change. Often there is not enough support provided early in efforts to adoption new thinking, practices and tools. And that lack of support creates a large increase in resistance. When people are not comfortable using a PDSA process it is often daunting and they will seek to avoid doing so. The correct way to deal with this is with support and assistance – not with threats and demands. Once they are comfortable they will realize it is not daunting and in fact makes improvement much easier and more effective.

It might be in your organization the process improvement process is a nightmare that doesn’t allow innovation. If that is the case the short term strategy may be to keep such process improvement efforts away from parts of the organization. But a great reward is waiting for those that instead get to work making the process improvement practices from Dr. Deming, lean manufacturing, agile software development etc. work in your organization.

Related: Process Improvement and InnovationThe Checklist by Atul Gawande – Quality and InnovationChange is not Improvement

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