I get the question all the time, especially from organizations who have significant investment in some process improvement program — like a “lean six sigma” or “lean kaizen” (I hear the ghosts of Toyota engineers booing) initiative – and have picked all the low-hanging fruit clean, squeezed as much inefficiency from their work as is humanly feasible, and are now realizing that their beloved program wasn’t all that market-focused. All that internal scrutiny left the customer without any new and useful value. They’re realizing they need to focus on what they should have been focusing on all along: companywide innovation.

The question comes in different forms. Often it sounds something like this:

“What’s the difference between lean and innovation?” “Will an innovation effort clash with our lean program?”

It’s the wrong kind of question. It’s indicative of the wrong mindset. You hear it in the language: “We’re doing lean,” and “we’ve been doing lean for three years.” You don’t “do lean”! Do you “do innovation”? When’s the last time you heard someone say, “we’ve been doing innovation for three years”? Geez, what did you do before?

Why do we view anything branded “lean” as a bolt-on, but innovation as a necessary embedded competency every business must have?

Here’s the thing: lean thinking and innovation — ANY conscious, cognitive, creative problem-solving process for that matter — employs the human learning steps we come into the world with: curiosity makes us notice something, we ask a question, hypothesize an answer, test it out, and then reflect on whether the cause and effect we were anticipating came true.

It’s a learning loop. It’s at the heart of everything. The only difference between what many think of as “lean” and what they think of as “innovation” is where you point your energy.

Incremental, sustaining innovation and improvement efforts (kaizen) are focused on an existing process, product, service, or system. Think of it as a pie, in which about 25% is true value–stuff a customer cares about and pays for. The rest is stupid stuff: non value-adding things like overload, inconsistency, and all flavors of waste. Your “lean” or kaizen efforts are aimed at increasing true value by decreasing those burdens and value-detractors.

Radical or disruptive innovation (kaikaku) is focused on creating an altogether new pie.

“Lean” and innovation are not at odds. Allow me to make my case. Let’s look at the seven basic “mudas” or forms of waste…typical lean targets. Except, let’s look at them through the lens of what the entire commercial word defines as innovation.

Overproduction. Anything done without regard to demand counts as overproduction. That includes something as simple as processing an order before it’s actually needed. Uber, a radically innovative, just-in-time limousine service that doesn’t take advance reservations, has successfully excised this waste.

Overprocessing. When there are too many non-value-added steps to achieve a given outcome, you’ve got overprocessing. Amazon banished overprocessing with the “1-Click” innovation.

Conveyance. The very best you can hope for when transporting goods, material, and information from one place to another is that nothing goes wrong. Conveyance is a necessary evil to be reduced wherever possible. The decline of the U.S. Postal Service began with one of the most radically innovative applications ever, now 20 years old: Email.

Inventory. Any time inventory builds up, it creates unhelpful pressure to reduce or eliminate it. It’s a point of pain as close as your back pocket…your wallet, the traditional version of which promotes the “George Costanza” hulking mass of cards, cash, receipts, and sugar packets. Google Wallet aims to eliminate the wallet entirely as a physical storage device.

Motion. Needless repetition of any process (even a lean one) sucks time, productivity and cost. Even the best companies struggle with this. Until Apple’s iOS 7, you couldn’t select all the emails in your iPhone/iPad inbox and mark them “read.” If you had 500 emails, you had to go through each one to remove the little red number on the app, a constant eyesore. It only took Apple 6 years to ease that burden.

Defects/Rework. Everyone has experienced a defect of some kind: errors, inaccurate or incomplete information, flawed products. Ever try cutting a simple error-free straight line with a pair scissors? Nearly impossible. Requires trimming or rework every time. Until, that is, Tamas Fekete invented the Vector Scissors.

Waiting. We’ve all experienced waiting and the accompanying sense of helplessness and lost productivity. Both MinuteClinic and WellnessMartMD have eliminated the dreaded healthcare waiting room by minimizing procedures to those that are quick and easy to handle.


…think about it: all of these innovations are in a sense simply leaner versions of what was there before. It’s just that the scope, scale and magnitude of the improvement are so great that a new value pie has been baked, and while the general shape looks comfortably familiar, it tastes completely different.