Operate Versus Innovate

Misunderstanding Continuous Improvement

Early in my career, “Continuous Improvement” was a popular buzzword. Every company claimed to have some type of program that constantly looked to improve its processes. I misunderstood the concept of “Continuous Improvement”. In my mind, commitment to continuous improvement meant that, at any point during the completion of a task, if a potential improvement could be made then everything must stop while the process is updated. I wanted to change or improve a process while I was executing it. Every time I found an opportunity for improvement, the real work stopped and the work around how to improve it starts. Disrupting the work and creating inefficiencies instead of fixing them.

In his book Leadership is Language, L. David Marquet describes two modes of work:

  • Red work = Doing, executing the work of the business. Completing a process, producing a part; the goal is to complete the task.
  • Blue work = Thinking, collaborative reflection that embraces change; the goal is to improve the process.

I always forget which is which so I prefer more descriptive terminology:

  • Operating = The act of completing a routine task or business process.
  • Innovating = The act of improving a task or process.
The Small Business Operate-Innovate Cycle

The Small Business Operate-Innovate Cycle


The act of completing a routine task I will call Operating. This is working IN the business. While Operating, you may find parts of the process that could be tweaked, improved, or changed to decrease variability or increase the quality of the final product. This puts the worker in a difficult position, they are trying to complete a task but also feel compelled to stop and change the process. Unless there are gross errors, it doesn’t make sense to change a process while you are executing it. You wouldn’t try to tune-up your car while you are driving it, would you?


This is working ON the business. Set aside time to consider all of your ideas, tweaks, or crazy thoughts. Make sure this is time where you are not actively working on completing the task you are trying to improve.

Continuous improvement doesn’t mean improving while you work, it means having a rhythm of work/improve, operate/innovate. You won’t get stuck when you see something that could be changed. Simply make a note of the idea and and discuss the next time you are in Innovate mode.

Don’t Do Both At The Same Time

Operating should be focused on completing the work. This is, after all, why you are employed. Ideas about improvement or questions about the process should be recorded and saved for later.

What operators need is time dedicated to Innovate the process. A time to review the questions and processes notes. A time to discuss wild ideas, or ways to reduce or eliminate the process. Innovating while you Operate is a recipe for lost productivity and low quality outcomes.

Continuous Improvement Redefined

My definition of Continuous Improvement has changed. Continuous Improvement is more about the idea of never being finished improving rather than constantly changing the process while following it. Improving a process should be scheduled activity. Scheduled during a time when you are NOT using it.