Incremental vs. Breakthrough Continuous Improvement

Picture of Claudio Gutierrez

Claudio Gutierrez

President & Founder — Valens Project Consulting


Continuous improvement is an ongoing process that focuses on making incremental or breakthrough changes to enhance products, processes, and overall organizational performance. Two common approaches to continuous improvement are incremental improvement and breakthrough improvement. This blog will discuss the differences between these two approaches and their respective benefits in quality management.


What is Incremental Continuous Improvement?

Incremental continuous improvement, as the name suggests, involves making small, incremental changes over time. It focuses on identifying and addressing inefficiencies, bottlenecks, and areas for improvement gradually. This approach emphasizes steady progress and accumulating small wins to drive improvement.


One of the primary advantages of incremental improvement is its manageable scope. By tackling smaller, well-defined improvements, organizations can maintain a sense of control and avoid overwhelming their resources. Additionally, this approach allows for a smoother transition and integration of changes into existing processes, minimizing employee disruptions and resistance.


Incremental improvement is particularly effective in situations where the organization is seeking to optimize existing processes or products. By continuously refining and optimizing these elements, organizations can enhance efficiency, reduce waste, and improve customer satisfaction over time. The incremental approach also promotes a culture of continuous learning and empowers employees to contribute to the improvement process.


What is Breakthrough Continuous Improvement?

Breakthrough continuous improvement, on the other hand, involves pursuing radical transformations and game-changing innovations. This approach aims to make significant leaps forward in performance, challenging the status quo and reimagining existing processes or products. Breakthrough improvement often requires a more disruptive and transformative mindset.


One of the key advantages of breakthrough improvement is its potential for significant impact. By questioning existing assumptions and exploring unconventional ideas, organizations can uncover breakthrough innovations that revolutionize their operations and market position. Breakthrough improvements can disrupt industries, create new market opportunities, and elevate the organization to new heights of success.


However, implementing breakthrough improvements can be more challenging and risky than incremental improvements. They often require substantial investment, experimentation, and a willingness to take calculated risks. Organizations must be prepared to embrace change and navigate potential resistance from stakeholders. Breakthrough improvements also require strong visionary leadership and a culture encouraging and supporting innovation.


Each organization has to determine what the best approach to continuous improvement is ideal for them.
Finding the Right Balance

While incremental and breakthrough continuous improvements have distinct characteristics, they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the most successful organizations often combine both approaches strategically.


By leveraging incremental improvements, organizations can continuously refine and optimize their processes, ensuring efficiency and stability. These smaller wins contribute to a culture of continuous improvement and lay the foundation for breakthrough innovations. On the other hand, breakthrough improvements provide the necessary disruptive force to challenge the status quo, drive innovation, and create a competitive edge.


Finding the right balance between incremental and breakthrough improvements is key. Organizations must assess their current state, objectives, and resources to determine the appropriate mix of approaches. A comprehensive quality management strategy should embrace both approaches, allowing for ongoing refinement and periodic leaps forward.


Final Thoughts

Incremental and breakthrough continuous improvements are two approaches that organizations can adopt to drive quality management and achieve excellence. While incremental improvements focus on steady progress and small wins, breakthrough improvements challenge the status quo and bring transformative changes. Both approaches have their merits and can be strategically employed to enhance products, processes, and overall organizational performance.


At Valens Project Consulting, we understand the nuances of quality management and can guide your organization in implementing effective continuous improvement strategies. Whether you seek incremental refinements or breakthrough innovations, our experienced team can help you achieve your quality management goals. Contact us today to learn more about how we can support your journey toward continuous improvement and excellence in quality management.


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