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When trying to identify and solve big problems that face your organization, it's tempting to focus all of your efforts on finding big solutions, too. Wouldn't it be nice if you could solve a budget crisis in one fell swoop with a single idea that cuts a million dollars of expenses? Or if someone could come up with an idea that would make everyone - even the most difficult customers - happy?

The pursuit of those "million dollar ideas" is a real problem in many organizations today. We want our employees to give us the million dollar idea that will solve all of our problems, but then struggle so much to find those ideas or turn them into reality.

The answer to this dilemma is to try a different approach: incremental improvement.


What is incremental improvement?

Improvement doesn’t have to come only from big, sweeping changes. While it is sometimes necessary to tackle big problems using big projects, this is not always the case. Incremental improvement is an approach to process improvement in which you and your staff focus  efforts on smaller solutions that slowly but surely move the business toward success. These ideas are typically low-cost and low-risk, and are implemented by employees throughout the entire organization. Although the results may not produce dramatic effects immediately, they will be long lasting. And the accumulation of numerous small improvements is often as powerful, or even more powerful, than attempts at making huge leaps.

How does it look in practice?

Incremental improvement in practice looks like minor adjustments to existing stairstepsprocesses made continuously, by everyone. Check out this example of what happened when one of our customers got their employees engaged in incremental improvement.

This chart shows the number of improvement ideas submitted (blue) compare to those that have been completed (red). Do you see how the left side of the chart increases in a stair step pattern? Compare that to the right side of the chart, that increases steeply and smoothly.

At the base of the sharp, steady upward climb, this organization trained their staff on the incremental improvement model and inspired them to get involved in the improvement work. That more steady ascent is a perfect example of what incremental improvement looks like.  

What are the benefits of incremental improvement?

  1. The ideas for improvement are easier to implement

    Incremental improvements typically have a low barrier to implementation, largely due to the fact that the ideas are coming from front line staff and often relate directly to their daily work. The ideas coming from employees are less likely to be radically different from the current process, and are therefore inherently easier to implement. They don't need committee approval or an executive's signature to make improvements.

  2. The improvement ideas are low-risk

    These small, staff-generated ideas can start out being tested in one work area to determine their success and impact. If they're found to improve the process, they can then be spread around the organization for an even greater impact. Learn about the value of small improvements here. 

  3. Process improvement is met with less resistance from employees

    Asking people to change the work they do or add any perceived burdens to the workload is often met with strong pushback. In addition to a natural resistance to change of any kind, people are particularly sensitive about top-down changes that often don't actually improve anything. Asking staff to identify things that will make the organization better and then empowering them to implement those changes themselves results in more widespread adoption of the improvements, because they find direct applicability to their work and are invested in the success of their own solutions.

  4. Improvement is cheaper

    This approach generally makes the most of your existing resources – infrastructure, staff, and knowledge – without the added expense of new research, construction, or equipment, so you don’t need major capital investments. These are typically improvements that your staff are able to make with the resources at hand or low incremental costs.

    For example, a hospital had an issue with their privacy curtains in the NICU. Whenever anyone would walk by, the breeze would cause the curtain to open, which made the patients very unhappy. A top-down, "big idea" approach could have been to buy new curtains for the entire hospital with enough weight to resist the breeze or some new fixed walls. Instead, an employee thought to attach binder clips (yes, the office supply) to the curtains to keep them closed. This small, risk-free, low-cost idea majorly improved patient satisfaction with the resources at hand.

  5. Increased staff engagement

    Incremental improvement draws upon the collective knowledge of your staff, allowing you to harness the collective power of your employees to make your business better. This responsibility and recognition encourages employee engagement that will promote pride in one’s work and promote voluntary participation. The ideas people will generate will be about making their jobs more enjoyable and improving the way they serve your customers, improving both the employee and the customer experience.

What kind of businesses benefit from incremental improvement?

They are Focused on Delivering Outstanding Customer Experiences

Companies keenly focused on customer service and satisfaction have a great deal to gain from incremental improvement because this approach enables the people in the company who are closest to the customer to make small daily improvements. It engages employees from across the organization in finding solutions to customer concerns and helps track each idea through implementation. The voice of the customer is heard loud and clear and every aspect of the customer experience can be considered in effecting change.


They are Invested in Employee Engagement

The incremental improvement approach is frequently used by companies that understand the value of employee engagement. By empowering employees to identify opportunities for improvement and implement their own solutions every day and recognizing employee contributions, leadership signals their commitment and trust in each individual. The results have a snowball effect as employees who feel valued are more likely to contribute valuable ideas and solutions.


They Have Limited Resources

The need to do more with less is pervasive and most companies face significant resource strain. Incremental improvement is one approach to leveraging resources in the most efficient way possible and finding opportunities to increase efficiency. Big projects require lots of resources to get off the ground, but incremental improvements have no bureaucratic, financial, or time barriers to implementation. Employee ideas have achieved huge savings for some businesses and led to new lines of revenue for others, with little resource input required.


Learn more about the ROI of continuous improvement in this free eBook: 

The ROI of Improvement