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Process Innovation vs Continuous Improvement – What’s The Difference?

Posted on May 16th, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


We looked last time at the importance of process innovation. Processes are the foundation of so much that we do, so paying them attention is no bad thing. In that post, I alluded to the idea that process innovation and continuous improvement are different things, which I want to expand on today.

So before we go any further, let’s take a look at those two in turn.

Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement is about looking at the way things are done and refining, honing or improving them. Typically, there will be gains in efficiency that are possible or reductions in cost that can be found.

The idea of continuous improvement is that it happens over time, bit by bit, and is never finished. Improvements tend to be incremental with every change resulting in a small gain. With continuous improvement there is a focus on improving the processes that are already in place.

Process Innovation

While the objective of process innovation is similar to that of continuous improvement, the approach is a little different. The changes that are labelled as “process innovation” tend to be big, disruptive changes. Process innovation can often reshape or redefine the way something is done.

Instead of focussing on improving the processes that are already in place, process innovation puts the emphasis on solving problem in the most effective way. And with that viewpoint, sometimes the most effective solution is to radically change the existing process.

As an example of the difference between improvement and innovation, we could look at the lightbulb. As the author of this article says, “The light bulb wasn’t invented by continuously improving the candle…it was about understanding what the job to be done was and then stepping back to look for solutions to solve this.” You could argue that no amount of improvement to the burn time or brightness of a candle would result in a solution as effective as the lightbulb. That requires a shift in focus.

Where The Two Meet

At their core, both process innovation and continuous improvement are intended to do the same thing. They’re both trying to help us achieve our goals more effectively.

It’s important to see them as distinct though. Most people, and most companies, will naturally lean towards one of these approaches more than the other. If we don’t recognise both as different, and valuable, it can be easy to fall into the trap of only ever considering one approach.

I’m sure that none of us would want to be lighting our workplaces with even the worlds brightest and longest burning candles. But we wouldn’t want to be using early versions of the lightbulb either. An effective strategy for growth considers both how to improve what’s already in place and also how to most effectively solve the problems being faced.

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