Hacks / Innovation · February 2, 2022

Leveraging incremental innovations

Small improvements in large numbers can revolutionize a product or business process.

I learned about this when undergoing a training on Kaizen in my first job at a car factory. Kaizen was one of the innovative techniques that made Japanese manufacturers so successful in the later half of last century. Kaizen emphasized on small, incremental improvements done on the shop floor by the workers themselves. By embedding this philosophy of continuous innovation in their workforce, they effectively turned it into a problem-solving army.

As a result, Japanese automakers rapidly refined their processes, ultimately reaching a manufacturing expertise which the rest of the world envied (and later copied).

But incremental innovation is not limited to any one industry. Think about your web browser. How many times has it updated in the last year? Even though the enhancements are barely noticeable, no web browser can stay relevant without consistently making incremental improvements.

Incremental innovation is what maintains the success of successful products.

New products often break in the market with radical innovations but in and of themselves, radical innovations, are rarely enough to make a well refined product. If a product is already considered useful by the users, incremental innovation can make it amazing for them.

Doing incremental innovations on a consistent basis is not easy, though. It requires the entire team to have a certain mindset and focus. Here are some tips you can use.

#1. See everything as a work in progress

As products and processes reach maturity and your team becomes familiar with them, they are less likely to question why certain things are the way they are. Consciously train them to see all things as being open to improvements. Welcome new ideas and try as many of them as possible. A healthy stream of well-thought out changes keeps the team thinking.

This aspect is most critical with new recruits. New recruits they can either reinforce incremental innovations or they can slowly bring it to a complete halt.

When I joined my current firm, GreyB, I was encouraged to share my opinion on things. As a result, I discovered many opportunities for improvements. Most of them were incremental, things like matching the borders of tables in our reports with the rest of the theme. Nonetheless, they did make our reports look better.

A far more important effect of this exercise, however, was that it implicitly got me into a habit of carefully analyzing our internal processes, questioning the status quo, discovering opportunities for improvements, and brainstorming possible solutions with my team.

#2. Bring in fresh perspectives

Another improvement opportunity I found as a newbie had to do with a literal perspective skew. I found that some of our computer monitors were set in such as way that their display resolutions did not match the input resolution. Due to this, the images seemed to be slightly stretched – a circle looked like an oval and so on.

People who had been working on these monitors had become accustomed to this minor stretching along the horizontal axis and did not even notice it. But seeing it for the first time, I noticed it immediately and we got it fixed from IT.

Fresh perspectives are precursors to innovations.

You get fresh perspectives, for example, by working with a new team for a while. I often do this: I ask other teams to have one of my team members work with them on their project for a couple of days. Teams differ much more in their mode of working than one would expect. So my teammates join back, they invariably have acquired some fresh new perspectives.

It is not enough to limit yourself to perspectives within your company, though.

You also need perspective from outside your company or even from outside your industry. This way, you can translate how others are solving problems to your own domain. Since finding relevant innovations from other industries is generally hard to do, we started a newsletter where we share cross-industry innovation stories. You can subscribe to it here.

#3. Impose constraints

Constrains are often seen as bad. The truth is that few things simulate innovative thinking like constraints do. Let me give you a live demonstration:

Take a minute and think about the improvements you can make in toothpaste tube.

I’ll wait…

Now think about it again, considering that the following constraints need to be satisfied:

  1. It can be used with one hand.
  2. The toothpaste should be 100% utilized (nothing left in the tube).
  3. Blind people can use it easily.

I am sure you must have come up with more ideas this time.

Constraints help guide your thinking and explore the solution space in a more systematic manner. Even if you don’t have all of your constraints identified or well defined, doing thought experiments in which you have fictitious constraints would certainly help you come up with more innovative ideas.

Constraints are good. Learn to love constraints.

Cover Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash