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It’s not Innovation, it’s Process Improvement.

Written by Tyler Wetzel on Wednesday, November 06, 2013


Parked old cars

Photo by Dietmar Becker

I come across many business owners today who attribute innovation as the key to their success, but then fail to understand the difference between inventing, innovating and improvement. Most companies aren’t being innovators, and all this buzz about being a innovative leader is overrated. You can stop posting Steve Job quotes now. Especially since most of his “innovations” came from other companies before being “improved” upon by Apple but I digress.

Most companies or start-ups that are trying to push a product of their own creation have already passed the inventing and/or innovation part, and are probably working towards a more polished product instead of another new idea. I am not against companies that focus solely on innovation, but I believe there is far more value to be earned by improving and building upon existing concepts rather then new ones.

The Three I’s

The biggest problem is that many employees can’t make the distinction between invention, innovation and improvement. Instead many businesses lump all three terms together under the “innovation” banner.

Here are definitions of the three I’s:

  • Invention creates something new
  • Improvement, sometimes referred to as Incremental Innovation, enhances something (makes it faster, better, cheaper, easier, etc.)
  • Innovation transforms an invention or an improvement through incubation into something that has a significant new impact on an organization or a market

Let’s not get them mixed up then. Write them down if you must.

Improvement vs Innovation

I won’t deny that a collaborative enviroment is good for innovation but what makes a product such as Facebook great is their dedication to constantly improving their product. You don’t make a product only to throw it away. It’s the quality that matters. That’s what will sell your product. Quality is determined by how relatively faster and better you can make a product over your competition.

iPhone stages

In fact, Nokia invented the first smart phone and Xerox invented the first graphical user interface on the Alto.

For example, the iPhone was revolutionary when it came out, but it’s success was limited to a handful of early adopters. To push the smart phone into the hands of regular people Apple needed to improve their product and make it outstanding. They meticulously improved its performance and speed. Yes, they added features but the iPhone is relatively the same as it was when it was initially released. This isn’t innovation. This is process improvement. And to those people claiming that Apple made the first smart phone are wrong. In fact, Nokia invented the first smart phone and Xerox invented the first graphical user interface on the Alto. Apple could more aptly be named the masters of improvement.

Xerox's Alto

Likewise, my experience at Goodwerp follows a similar path. It’s been a few months in with our Beta showing moderate success. Despite the good news, we are constantly looking for ways to improve. We’re not innovating or inventing something brand new. We’re simply using process improvement and data to make smarter decisions. We remove excess code or rebuild an interface to make it faster, cheaper or easier to use. This is process improvement.

Innovation would be a far bigger change to how a system operates. When cars were first introduced they were an innovation in how we traveled. If we were to say it was an improvement in transportation then people would be asking for a faster horse instead of a new Bugatti. The rise of the airplane follows a similar progression. When you revolutionize a market then you are an innovator.

The Good News

Despite what critics say, there is more incentive for a company to focus around improvements over innovation. Most products that we enjoy today are not new to us. They have had time to mature and improve over time. Yes, innovation is important but it also costs quite a hefty sum for research and development of a brand new product. For smaller businesses the focus should be on improvement. For a large scale company, such as Google, striving for perfection within the current process paradigm might be necessary at times (SEO), at other times it’s more important to destroy the very process you’re trying to perfect (Google+ VS Facebook).

Read next: Time Span of Discretion


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