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Organizing for Improvement versus Innovation

Organizing for Improvement versus Organizing for Innovation

Busy organizing for continuous improvement in your professional service organization? Both in health care and in the legal industry there are some great examples of how to embed continuous improvement into the fabric of your organization. Is the same infrastructure also suitable for fostering innovation and new business development?

How to organize for improvement

A McKinsey study has some nice examples of healthcare institutions that have adopted Lean. Seyfarth Shaw is the best known example of the implementation of Six Sigma in a law firm.

Even though health care and law are very different, the resemblances are remarkable when it comes to the adoption of Lean, enabling us to draw some generic lessons for how to approach organizing for improvement in a professional service organization:

  • Data is key. Without a baseline and measurable criteria for what you would like to improve, you cannot be successful, as you will not be able to define success.
  • Involvement of leadership is key. Sustainable continuous improvement is a responsibility for everyone in the organization, not just for a department somewhere in the basement. Different people will play different roles, but leadership needs to set the example and be actively engaged.
  • Professional engagement is key. Professionals are experts in their specific domain, not in continuous improvement, which is a passion or interest and not a task. Acknowledge this fact and adopt teaching materials, processes and procedures to allow for part-time engagement.

How different is organizing for improvement from innovating?

Organizing for Improvement versus Organizing for Innovation

There are many similarities when organizing for innovation and organizing for improvement. However, there are also differences you should be aware of.


Both innovation and improvement require:

  • Learning. Learning to do things differently, faster and better, and reflecting on outcomes that are different from what was expected.
  • Data. As mentioned above, without data you are in the dark and unable to differentiate positive trends from negative ones.
  • Being systematic. Improvement requires a systematic approach, but so does innovation. As Edison said, Innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Often people confuse the 1% inspiration with the lack of a systematic approach. On the contrary, innovation requires discipline.
  • Involved professionals. Professional service firms are complex and knowledge-intensive organizations. Making changes requires the involvement of those who have insight in how changes will impact the complexity of existing processes.


Here are some differences between innovating and improving:

  • Improvement focuses on improving what exists already, while innovation sets out to change the paradigm.
  • When improving, you are trying to reduce variance and negative deviation, to improve the overall performance average. When innovating, you are interested in the upward variance and shifting the paradigm to create more variance, not less.
  • With improvement you can reach typical savings or efficiencies of 5-10%, whereas with innovation you are looking for improvements of a different magnitude—2 to 10 times better or faster. Typically such changes cannot occur when clinging to current methods and approaches.
  • When improving, you are looking for the weakest, least valuable parts of the system, as that is where you will get the most mileage from your efforts. To innovate, you have to rethink the system as a whole, which often requires exploring many alternative options, including ones that seem totally improbable.

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Professional Service | Organizing for Innovation


Application of Six Sigma at Seyfarth Shaw

McKinsey report on Clinical Operations Excellence