IT Improvement vs. Breakthrough

I want to explore another aspect of the Business-IT Maturity mid-Level 2 sticking point.  As a client said to me last week in a variation on an old chestnut, “You can’t improve yourself into Level 3.”  I think it was Joseph Juran in the early 1960′s who really had this figured out.  In his groundbreaking book, Managerial Breakthrough, Juran distinguishes between improvement and breakthrough.  This is the essence of a debate that has raged for years between the quality improvement fans and the business process reengineering aficionados – “Should you improve it, or blow it up?”  I’ve always believed that debate was bogus – you need both strategies, and need to understand the differences between continuous improvement (Juran, as a statistical process control authority refers to this as “control”) and innovation (which Juran refers to as “breakthrough.”)  He discusses the different management systems and structural approaches to each.  Both are valid and are appropriate under different circumstances, typically alternating in one long cycle.

My point here is that the journey from Level 1 to Level 2 is essentially one of continuous improvement – putting the controls in place for predictable, stable and reliable services.  The journey from Level 2 to Level 3, at the mid-point of Level 2 requires a shift to breakthrough management.  You can’t get there with a control mindset.

Now the real challenge is, remembering that this is all about a maturity model – the Level 1 and low Level 2 stuff never goes away, so you can’t simply throw out all the good process and quality improvement work you did to get to Level 2.  But you have to shift focus from the IT supply side to the business demand side, and this is where the breakthrough disciplines can be applied.  So, as a broad generalization and over-simplification, you first master continuous quality improvement management (control) on the supply capabilities to get out of Level 1, and then apply innovation management (breakthrough) to get towards Level 3.

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