Improvement’s not enough, businesses need to innnovate

It annoys me when people with vested interests – would-be gurus – make business sound more complicated than it is by using Japanese names for simple concepts.

Improvement's not enough, businesses need to innnovate

Kaizen is a good example: it literally means “refinement”, but in management speak it denotes “continuous improvement”, the repeated application of small improvements that add up to a better product. The trouble is that just squeezing out version after marginally better version may stifle innovation.

Did Apple use kaizen to develop the iPad? Of course not – that wasn’t a small improvement on previous tablets but the definition of a whole new market sector (and the same was true of the iPhone). It’s far easier to make your existing offerings slightly better than to come up with the next leap forward, but kaizen may encourage navel-gazing instead of quantum leaps, and companies that become obsessed with the concept risk losing their edge to sharper competitors.

This isn’t to say that improvement doesn’t have its place – the iPad 2 and later generations of the iPhone are perfect examples. Apple is a company characterised by market-defining product launches that leave rivals in catch-up mode, but it understands the need to follow innovation with serial small improvements. But even as an existing product range is steadily enhanced, be sure that company visionaries are searching for the next big leap.

I often see owners of small businesses baulk at spending money to attract customers

We can’t all be like Apple, and it’s perhaps dangerous for a small online business to model itself on such an example. So much of Apple’s success can be attributed to only two exceptional people – the vision of Steve Jobs, and the design genius of Jonathan Ive. However, innovation takes many forms, and the ability to step back from the comfortable detail of what you’re doing and look around at options is a crucial business skill, particularly in difficult times.

Running a small business can be a lonely experience. The flip side of the control you looked forward to when you left paid employment is the responsibility you must take for every aspect of the business. I know from experience that this can turn your focus inward, trying to eke out tiny improvements in revenue. Of course, you must keep a close eye on how the business is running, but you must also know when to take the wider view and innovate.

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