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Improvement & Innovation

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Innovation is defined as a new idea, way of doing something, or a new device (Merriam-Webster). In organizations, innovation can also mean the introduction and application of an approach used in other industries to a team or system. As systems and organizations get better at getting better, cycles of improvement increasingly include innovations.


When a team awakens to the real meaning and practice of a continuous improvement approach to make lasting change, team members begin to think about improvement possibilities differently. Getting away from initiative-centered thinking can be a challenge for organizations that may be accustomed to jumping from one episodic and silver bullet promise to the next. However, the deliberate shift to ongoing cycles of improvement opens the door to creativity and innovative thinking about system needs.

Most of the time, these different ways of thinking aren’t necessarily new to the world. They might just be new and better for the organization. As the dust clears from initiative-jumping and team members grow skilled at thinking about the system as a whole, they are able to focus on bringing innovative ideas into each improvement cycle.


Continuous improvement is not a quick-hit approach to achieving our most important goals. As organizations engage in cycles of improvement, the need to rethink and modify system structures to support lasting change surfaces and becomes priority for leaders and teams. Improvement cycles reflect these necessary changes for a while, which may feel like slowed progress in other areas. During this time, it is critical for teams to embrace improvement as a journey. Recognize the importance of having the right structures in place and celebrate movement to each new cycle of improvement. This will keep the momentum going, narrow the focus, and help all team members realize that improvement is not a final destination.

Continuous improvement naturally leads to consideration of the entire system because we get better at looking at data and knowing which data actually matter. As we learn the best data to track, we begin to recognize actions that impact those measures that matter. We become comfortable with letting go of actions and initiatives that don’t align and create distracting noise around our areas of focus. What initiatives might be causing extra noise in your organization, while not resulting in intended improvement? Do you spend time reviewing any noisy data that are no longer aligned to the priorities?

Build a habit of asking: Is there a better way to do this? Then, try it. Once appropriate structures are in place, a continuous improvement approach offers focus, alignment, and freedom for thinking about new and better. Brainstorming around a critical few priorities for improvement allows for the emergence of innovative ideas. Team members are a great resource for new ideas, when they know and can concentrate on what really matters and they trust that they will be listened to.

Conduct an Initiative Audit

It’s hard for teams to innovate when they are pulled in competing directions. Before expecting innovation from your team, figure out if unnecessary initiatives are taking up time and energy. Conduct an initiative audit by asking your team to simply list all of the initiatives or projects they are working on. Align those initiatives to your strategic priorities and annual goals. If an initiative or project doesn’t align, consider getting rid of it. Why cloud valuable brain space with something that isn’t aligned?