Grant me the patience to continuously improve some processes, the courage to radically reengineer others, and the wisdom to know when to do either.”

Michael Hammer and James Champy kicked off the reengineering trend with their bestselling book, Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution. In the book, they define process reengineering as “the fundamental rethinking and radical redesign of business processes to achieve dramatic improvements in critical contemporary measures of performance, such as cost, quality, service, and speed…reengineering isn’t about fixing anything…reengineering a company means tossing aside old systems and starting over…reengineering can’t be carried out in small and cautious steps. It is an all-or-nothing proposition…tradition counts for nothing. Reengineering is a new beginning.”

The call for revolutionary and radical process reengineering soon clashed with the continuous improvement techniques of the quality movement. This approach is based on the wide spread use of teams to make incremental process improvements. Kaizen, or continuous improvement, achieves its impressive results through “rapid inch up” — adding together hundreds or thousands of individual and team improvement efforts over many years. As, Hesiod, the 8th century BC Greek poet pointed out, “If you add a little to a little and do this often enough, soon it will become great.”

But many quality improvement efforts failed to produce significant results because they were poorly implemented. So managers jumped on the reengineering bandwagon. However, choosing between process reengineering or incremental improvement is about as useful as deciding whether to use only addition or multiplication. Both are needed. How, when, and where each approach and combinations of both are used, depends on the task to be performed. Like visions and goals, reengineering and incremental improvement is another and/also paradox to be managed.

Balancing Reengineering and Incremental Improvement


Incremental Improvement

  • Radical redesign and creation of new processes
  • Continuous improvements to existing processes
  • Broad, organization-wide
  • Single teams or functions
  • Destroy the old and begin fresh
  • Standardize and stabilize existing processes
  • Top down
  • Bottom up
  • Major structural changes force new behaviors
  • Training and culture change drive new behaviors
  • High investment and risk with little room for error
  • Moderate investment and risk by learning as you go

Both reengineering and incremental improvement provide the vital process management so critical to balancing technology, management, and leadership. We’ve seen organizations provide an exciting Focus and Context (vision, values, and purpose) that turns everybody on. They’ve provided education and training, reward and recognition and pinpointed their customer/partner performance gaps. But with ineffective processes, a misaligned structure, and/or weak support systems, their performance slipped and the improvement effort was unsuccessful.

Passionate leadership is vital. Breakthrough thinking and stretch goals push people to solve old problems in new, innovative ways. But it’s just so much dissipated energy without disciplined management and effective technology. The strength and contributions of both these areas depend on effective process management that balances both reengineering and incremental improvement.