Posted by: qmaxim | May 23, 2012

End of the road for continuous improvement?

Continuous improvement has been one of  the fundamental  pillars of  Quality  for over 5 decades. Almost  no  ISO standard is complete without a  picture of  cont. improvement helix . Continuous improvement once powered Japan’s economy. Japanese manufacturers built their formidable Quality reputation by using Continuous improvement and dominated many sectors of the economy for decades. However, in the recent past, they have been losing market routinely  to competitors from Korea, China and other countries.

So, is the continuous improvement no longer winning strategy?  A recent  HBR blog  post (http://tinyurl.com/6vvffnt)  discusses this issue.

My comments on this post  are copied below. What are your views?

Thought  provoking post , thanks.

Having spent many years  in process management and continuous improvement, in my view,  continuous improvement and breakthrough improvements  should coexist, as it does  in most successful companies.

Innovations (or breakthrough improvements) follow the so called ‘S’ curve. When the technology  is new and just implemented, rate of  cont. improvement tends to be high. But, as the technology matures, benefits from process and product improvement begins to taper off until   it is no longer  worthwhile continuing with the  improvement effort.  Quite often, by studying the information such as number of patent application filed one can get an idea about  position of particular technology  in the ‘S’ curve.

As you correctly pointed out, innovation process and continuous improvement  process should  have different  set of metrics.

Recent  setbacks of the Japanese tech. giants cannot be attributed to failure of their cont. improvement strategy alone.  These are also due to external environment (e.g. sky high value of Yen and artificially low value of Chinese currency, Tsunami in Japan), internal problems ( e.g. Sony’s management paralysis for many years) , etc. For example, in India, Koreans had the high end TV  market to themselves for many years until Sony got its act together. Now India is one of Sony’s largest markets for these products. Toyota’s recent  setbacks were in fact due  to  paying less attention to  Quality  in their  scramble to become the biggest car company in the world. This is well  documented.

Innovation leader Samsung has hundreds of Six Sigma black-belts  working on cont. improvement as well as TRIZ masters working on improving innovation success rate. So, it is a bit  too early to write-off continuous improvement.

 

 

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