I think Tom Peters has tremendous passion and great ideas. Among his ideas are the topic of innovation and breaking paradigms (probably “destroying” would be a better term) and of learning through failure. Because of this, he is not a fan of kaizen or continuous improvement, as they tend to be incremental refinement of an existing process, rather than the creation of an innovative product or service. Is this “dangerous”? Is there a place for kaizen? In “This I Believe” (found here) Tom presents 60 ideas he firmly believes in, one of which (number 12 in his list) is the concept that “Kaizen (Continuous Improvement) is…Very Dangerous Stuff”.

“Yet these important notions are in part cornerstones of an earlier, industrial age…when winning products stayed on the shelves in showroom floors for years, even decades. Now excellence has become transient…the Pursuit of Perfection gets in the way of ferreting out the Next Big Thing.”

These seem like scary ideas to be communicating on my blog, since I support kaizen and improvement efforts. However, I disagree with Peters to some degree. Kaizen and improvement have its place. Once you’ve created the “Next Big Thing” now you need to make it, and you need to do it such a way that you are adding the most value to your customers and doing it with the least amount of waste.  And kaizen and continuous improvement are the tools for the job.  Even within kaizen and CI, you can innovate (in fact, that’s what should be happening) how the product is produced.  And it should happen quickly (kaizen: rapid change for the better).

However, I will agree with Tom that they may not always be the best tools for the job.  Kaizen, CI, and other lean tools may need to stay away from companies’ R&D and creative departments, as a great article in Business Week recently discusses.  It covers the tension 3M is facing in remaining creative and innovative while implementing tools like Six Sigma that were ingrained during James McNerney’s reign as CEO there.  As the new CEO, George Buckley, leads 3M he could provide a great road map for striking a balance between breakthrough innovation and process improvement.  Kaizen could be dangerous, but only when used for the wrong purpose.