How To Get Your Initiative To Stand Out: Continuous Improvement’s Positioning Problem

What’s in a name? Actually, quite a lot. Why do we call one of the most essential major strategic initiatives a business can undertake something as uninspiring as continuous improvement? Or worse yet, why would we ever consider naming it after the tools or methodologies we use like “Lean” or “Six Sigma”? After all, when’s the last time you’ve ever heard a building named “Mix the Concrete”? Yet most businesses launch huge initiatives with a name hardly anyone understands. And then they expect everyone to support and practice it from line worker to administrative assistant to creative designer all the way up to the CEO. Actually, those monikers are a horrible choice. Continuous improvement evokes no emotion and things like six sigma are at best obscure or at worst fear-inducing.

Why don’t we build a strategic business case that calls it what it really is: innovation. Innovation is the development of an idea, any idea, into a commercialized reality that creates value. And that’s what the business really wants. As the late Cynthia Rabe said in her book The Innovation Killer, “Consider this: Would you rather own stock in a company where all employees… were encouraged to think of new and better ways to do things? Or would you prefer the company that only asked the new product developers to think out of the box?”

The core value proposition of Lean, Six Sigma, and other continuous improvement initiatives is innovation; albeit, incremental. The CEO wants innovation. Employees are energized by innovation. The business wants the value innovation brings. The customers want the value innovation delivers. All the stakeholders that matter to the success of a strategic initiative can align to innovation that creates value.  Yet leaders of “continuous improvement” or “lean” or “six sigma” or whatever they call it seemingly haven’t done one of the key steps in building a business case and leading a strategic initiative: positioning the value proposition to key stakeholders for meaningful adoption and use.

Things like lean, six sigma and a host of others are the tools and methodologies employed to identify, quantify, and spark the ideas that, after they are developed and commercialized, become innovations that create value. Just like you wouldn’t call your new product for consumers “focus group”, don’t call your strategic initiative “Six Sigma”. Think like a marketer that wants to sell his or her product. Instead, take the time to clearly articulate the value proposition. Then create a positioning statement that can be used to drive your strategic initiative. Positioning done right for a strategic initiative will drive faster and more complete adoption of the value proposition and yield much greater success; success that focuses the entire organization on innovation and value creation instead of the continuous improvement program of the day. Yes, the program still has to deliver on it’s promises. And yes, positioning will help define a moniker that’s a lot sexier and much more inspiring than “continuous improvement”.


(Note: Positioning is critical to the success of any strategic initiative. A positioning statement is the product of articulating the target stakeholder group, defining a frame of reference, identifying a meaningful point of difference (from the standpoint of the target), and providing clear reasons to believe. If you don’t have a core positioning for your initiative that is then optimized for each stakeholder group, it is unlikely you will succeed in driving the results you want. For more information, contact me at Glad to chat about your challenges and the opportunities positioning may provide.)