Incrementalism, or Making Change in Small Steps

BusinessWeek wrote about Segway, the wonderfully inventive two-wheel transportation device that was supposed to revolutionize how cities are built. Of course, I don’t know anyone who is currently building a new city from the ground up, but that’s a different story. You’re not supposed to be able to fall off, but as you can see, that isn’t quite true either. I never believed the hype of this product. As an engineer, I can appreciate it’s brilliant concepts. But as a product, that people must buy, it was a different view. But I want to focus on a different aspect, a note at the end of the story that said:

“Life,” Kamen says, “is too short for incrementalism.” It’s a big statement, and, put simply, untrue. Incrementalism might not inspire an initial burst of invention (Kamen is definitely the expert on that), but it’s a pretty good description of how inventions actually make it into the real world when the publicity is gone.

I think Kamen’s got it wrong. Life is too short for small dreams, small visions. We should pursue a vision that will outlast ourselves, pursue something so worthwhile that the challenge will keep us occupied and its worth the effort of not just one man or woman, but many. But the pursuit of that dream, that vision, MUST be pursued incrementally. Very few changes occur with a big bang. The internet started in 1968 (depending on your definition) but took until the 1990’s to really be meaningful. Ohno worked on the Toyota Production System for decades, and even upon his death believed he had only achieved a fraction of what he thought was necessary.

Change must occur daily, in small steps. Don’t pursue a strategy of planning for 5 years and then change in a day. Make change each day. Those incremental steps, that Kaman denounces, add up to massive progress over time.

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Jamie Flinchbaugh is a lean advisor, speaker, and author. In addition to co-founding the Lean Learning Center, he has helped build nearly 20 companies as either a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor. These companies range from high-performance motorcycles to SaaS tools for continuous improvement. He has advised over 300 companies around the world in lean transformation, including Intel, Harley-Davidson, Crayola, BMW, and Amazon. Jamie co-authored the popular book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, and continues to share his experiences as a Contributing Editor forIndustryWeek and as a blogger at JamieFlinchbaugh.com. He holds degrees from Lehigh University, University of Michigan, and MIT, and continues to teach and mentor on campus. Jamie is best known for helping to transform how we think about lean from a tools-centric model to one based on principles and behaviors. His passion for lean transformation comes from seeking to unlock the great potential that people possess to build inspiring organizations.

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1 Comment on "Incrementalism, or Making Change in Small Steps"

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  1. Kevin Carrelli says:

    I actually have this discussion every week with my co-workers. There is almost an sense of urgency to make broad swweping changes that will eliminate all possible waste at once. The problem is, these plans either are either too complex and slow, or they miss something that causes future work arounds.

    The phrase here is “Do something.” Obviously what we do has to move towards adding value to what we do, but a smaller step that is achieved quickly can snowball as people see the cause and effect of their efforts.

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