Is Continual Service Improvement the ONLY way?

We all want to make things better: improve what we’re doing and come up with good ideas. Often this imperative is presented as a single concept: Continual Service Improvement. That’s a valuable concept, in helping all our staff realise they have a responsibility in our never-ending efforts to make things better. There is much that has been written about being sure we understand what ‘better’ means, and much more will be, including by me in future blogs, I hope. Let me summarize it rather brutally here as ‘what good looks like for our customers”. It relies on Business Relationship Management working properly, and customer getting involved. But there is another perspective in improvement that can be useful to see and use in your improvement initiatives, and I would focus on that idea in this blog: that there are actually different ways of becoming ‘better’, that we often clump them together but it can be helpful to see the range.

More of the same or different?

If the goal is to improve our organisation as a whole, then that gives us a wide spectrum of improvement approaches, from tinkering with our technique at one end and question everything revolution at the other, with some useful steps along the way. Another way to show that is in the simple picture shown.

getting-betterThis picture shows four underlying routes to improvement. I’ve used some currently fashionable buzz-words like ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ but of course, these aren’t really discrete, separated ideas, each isolated inside their own little box. That’s just a useful tool for us to visualise, understand, devise and imply improvement ideas. One idea may overlap boundaries or offer opportunities in multiple areas. This is merely a way of looking and I hope you find it a useful one. We can use it a range of ways, including seeing what balance we have across the different improvement spaces and trying to make that balance better matched to our situation, opportunities, and requirements.

Applying it to everyday life

Putting aside for a while the complex and sophisticated work environment, let’s illustrate the concept in a domestic scenario: something as simple as cleaning the kitchen.

Our first box, in the bottom left, (refinement) might see us using better cleaning materials, scrubbing harder or cleaning more often.

Moving right to ‘innovation’ we make changes to our approach: perhaps cleaning the kitchen as we are cooking, and after every meal, not once or twice a week as a separate task. 

‘Invention’ in the top left could be driven by new technology: self-cleaning ovens, sealed deep-fat friers instead of a chip pan and so on. Approaches we may have wished for before but have only now become possible. (We likely dreamed of appliances that clean themselves long before they become reality.)

The top right is where we tear up the rule book and disrupt the status quo, coming from new directions to think about the outcomes we are seeking, rather than starting with what we do now. So, maybe the best way to keep the kitchen clean is to eat out every night, get take-aways or eat at work before we come home. Maybe when we cost out downsizing to somewhere without a kitchen but good local takeaways we reach a solution that is both cheaper and easier. But radically different to what we do now.

The concept applies to every situation. It just sometimes takes us a while, and a conscious effort, to see where we are currently focused, and where else we might want to focus efforts.

Balance and the value of all parts

It’s tempting to think that we should all be striving to find solutions in the top right, disruption, space but that isn’t necessarily the case. Most organisations need a healthy flow of ideas from the other boxes to realise beneficial changes. Viable disruptive ideas are rare, and they tend to invalidate most of the other improvements underway. Yes, we do need to recognise the possibility and power in such changes, but it doesn’t mean we should ignore the more everyday ways we can make things better.

Some organisations might identify a need for greater focus towards the top righthand corner of our matrix, others may identify a need to be more prosaic and find and implement simple improvements that deliver quick value. As always, the trick is to step back, see your situation and match your behaviour to it. Hopefully, this matrix is one more tool to help you do that.

Maybe it’ll help keep your kitchen clean too?

Blog cover by Prasanna