Improvement Versus Innovation

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Continuous improvement versus innovation.  What is the key differentiator between the two?

Let’s talk about batteries.  There are a lot of things in our lives that use batteries.  For the longest time the world used zinc-carbon batteries and then came alkaline batteries and the Duracell bunny and then Lithium-IronSulfide batteries.  Yeah, I never heard of those last batteries either.  Each generation added more capacity.  Alkaline had 50% more capacity than zinc-carbon and Litthium-IronSulfide had 100% more capacity than zinc-carbon.  Incremental improvements.

In the rechargeable world we went from NiCd to NiMH to Li-ion batteries with the biggest improvements coming in terms reducing the “battery memory” so that you didn’t need to fully discharge the battery before recharging it.  Capacity imrovements?  Sort of.  NiMH actually have a higher capacity than Li-ion, but can’t be recharged nearly as often.  Incremental improvements.

But, the change from one-time use batteries to rechargeable batteries?  That was a disruptive change.  Your phone would not be possible without rechargeable batteries.  If my math (and Google) are correct, the latest iPhone 7 would require 3.5  alkaline AA batteries to replace the existing battery inside of it.  That might not seem like a lot, but if you use the cheap batteries it would require 12 of them, every day, to keep your iPhone functioning.  The iPad Pro that I use?  64 batteries per day.  That device, that technology, would not be possible without rechargeable batteries.

Recharchable batteries, Li-ion in particular, changed the game.  It was a disruptive change.  You can continually improve on things, incrementally making them last longer, have a higher capacity, use less energy, etc., but at some point there is something that is blocking your progress, a wall.  You break down the earlier walls and travel down the path, but after each wall the distance you can travel gets shorter.  What you need, is a different path.

That is the difference between continual improvement and innovation.  Continual improvement takes the problem and tries to improve on existing solutions.  Innovation says, I’m going to solve the problem, but with a new solution.  Or, even more radically, I’m going to re-visit the problem to see if it’s even the problem I should be solving and then create a new solution.

Let’s take a look at deployments to production.  The original solution was emails from teams telling us they had something that needed to go into production.  An incremental improvement was a SharePoint site where they could schedule the deployment.  It was an incremental improvement over the previous method.  And then DeCo came along, a totally different approach to solving the same problem.  We used to do four or five changes per day with the email/SharePoint site method.  With DeCo we’ve gone over 40 changes per day multiple times.  After DeCo?  Automated deployments through BuildMaster.  On November 3rd we did 30 deployments manually.  Another 18 were done through BuildMaster.  We’ve got the hang of automated deployments.

We’re kind of at the brick wall now with deployments.  Yes, we can automate them, make the actual deployment process faster, more accurate and allow project teams greater control.  We can do that.  We have done that.  But is that the problem that we need to solve?  Kind of.  Automation is the key to the future, of that there is no doubt, but it is not the final step in the journey.  The problem of how to make deployments faster, easier, simpler,  has been solved.  With a little bit of effort we can make that headache go away, but what is the next problem, the real problem that we are trying to solve.

Innovation isn’t so much “thinking out of the box”, it’s also wondering “why is there a box?”.

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