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Breakthrough vs. Incremental Innovation

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Within innovation literature it is often popular to distinguish between breakthrough innovations and incremental innovations.

A breakthrough innovation would be something like Bell Labs’ invention of the transistor. An incremental innovation would be like Intel developing a larger, faster chip.

Many people, especially some high priests of business management, like to look down on incremental innovations and claim that breakthrough innovations are the most (only) important issue. But focusing only on accomplishing breakthrough innovations can be a recipe for losing your shirt.

RCA laboratories invented the liquid crystal display (LCD) panels that today are responsible for killing the cathode ray tube (CRT) business. But the high profits have gone to the companies that continued to incrementally innovate the product and the associated processes such as Samsung.

So, of course, organizations need to be good at both breakthrough and incremental innovation. Not either/or but both. And this is where the quality profession comes in.

Much of what quality technology is applied to can broadly be characterized as incremental innovation. Increasing the yield of a process by reducing the defects or achieving better control of a process are typical examples of incremental innovations.

However, innovations that may not be technologically significant enough to warrant much attention in technical journals may indeed be extremely important economically.

Making the first lightbulb was a technological breakthrough. Making and fine-tuning (with design of experiments and statistical process control) a machine that can produce 3,000 lightbulbs an hour is not.

As indicated above, we need both breakthrough and incremental innovations.

Excerpted from Søren Bisgaard, “The Future of Quality Technology: From a Manufacturing to a Knowledge Economy & From Defects to Innovations,” Quality Engineering, 24 (2012): 30-36.

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