Can we treat improvement and innovation the same?

Bunshiro OCHIAI
7 min readFeb 9, 2022


In my previous article, I gave you an overview of the improvement/innovation process and talked about the first process, “(1) Intuition and decision on purpose.” In that article, I mentioned that in implementing improvement/innovation, it is necessary to consciously ask “within what scope” and make a decision.

In this article, I would like to talk about the setting of the scope of improvement/innovation using specific examples, and tell you what we should keep in mind when setting the scope.

Our Story: Declining Engagement Scores

In December of 2020, during a regular meeting with our HR team, I was informed that “internal engagement is declining. We need to consider countermeasures.” We conduct an engagement survey once every six months, and the results of the survey for the second half of 2020 were just coming in.

Looking at the contents of the report, I found that the engagement score had indeed dropped by 0.2–0.3 points on an average of five levels. At that time, I was discussing countermeasures together with the HR team, and I had the following conflicting thoughts in my mind.

(A) Due to the spread of infectious diseases, it was necessary to go online in a hurry, which increased the workload at the frontline and made many employees feel exhausted. This is the result of management decision-making, and I feel responsible for it.
⇅ (conflicting thoughts)
(B) On the other hand, speeding up the process of going online was a decision that, in retrospect, had to be made. In that situation, it seems that we had no other choice.

(C ) This is an organizational issue and the HR team is to be asked to come up with measures to improve engagement.
⇅ (conflicting thoughts)
(D) This is a management issue, and more importantly, it may be one of those issues that originates from the mindset of the management team.

To be honest, the thoughts that occupied most of my mind were (B) and ©. In a nutshell, the thought was, “It’s a story that had no choice, so let’s let the HR team figure out how to deal with this issue.”

But, “Is it really so?” There was also a tangled thought in my mind, “There might be something I’m not seeing.”

Therefore, while having the question of what range of scope should be set regarding the phenomenon of a decline in engagement scores, I listened to the opinions of the employees in the 1-on-1 sessions that I regularly conduct. In the process, I heard many stories of each individual who is doing their best in the midst of rapid changes in the environment.

While the customer was struggling until the very end to decide whether to conduct the training online or offline, and the policy was changing two or three times, the sales representative was sincerely handling the situation until just before the training was to be conducted.

While the online workflow was not set in stone, the program development staff thought that there should be no omissions in the work, so they made a list of all online training programs, checked for omissions in the work, and alerted us internally.

Despite the many cancellations and schedule changes, the sales clerks handled the paperwork with precision and speed, even as the situation changed from one day to the next.

In listening to these stories, I felt that the decline in engagement score is not a small issue, but one of the major problems stemming from my own mental model. I am convinced that this is a story that should be captured in (A) and (D) above, i.e., as “one of the company-wide problems originating from the mindset and mental model of the management team.”

After defining the scope of the issue in this way, I took it as a problem at the level of the management team’s mindset and reviewed my own way of thinking and perceiving the issue. At the same time, I shared the sense of crisis among the management team and implemented various measures as a company-wide issue. These efforts are still in progress, but I feel that a “transformation” that goes beyond the level of mere improvement is taking place within the company.

Awareness of the limits of cognition

Through this incident, I was reminded of the fact that there is a limit to one’s cognition, and the importance of always being aware of the limits of one’s cognition.

This may seem obvious when we hear this but when we become a party to the situation, we tend to have conflicts like the one described in the case study in this article, or to put it a bit more simply, we tend to have our own convenient interpretations and want to see things within the framework of our own perception.

In the case of our company, if we had thought, “We had no choice, so let’s have the HR team think about how to deal with this issue,” I don’t think we would have been able to create the change that is now realizing in our company.

When I look back on this process, I am grateful for the input from the people around me: “The HR team shared with me their awareness of the issue of declining engagement scores,” and “During the 1-on-1 session, I learned the story of each employee who was working hard in the midst of rapid environmental change.

The combination of being a little more aware of my own cognitive limitations and the input from the people around me has helped me to make changes within the company.

Competency trap

So far, I have shared our company’s story and talked about the importance of being aware of our own cognitive limitations. Related to the topic of cognitive limits, I would like to talk about some things to keep in mind when setting the scope of improvement and innovation.

Have you ever heard the term “ambi-dexterity”? To put it simply, it means to strike a balance between exploring new possibilities (knowledge exploration) and trying to do things better than before ( knowledge exploitation).

The point here is that since the exploration of knowledge is to go outside of one’s (our) own cognition, the cost and risk of producing results is high, and companies tend to be inclined to go for knowledge exploitation. As a result, the exploration of knowledge becomes inadequate and innovation in the medium term is not possible.

The reason why I introduced this concept is that when setting the scope of improvement/innovation, there is a bias towards improvement (small changes) rather than innovation (big changes). In other words, we need to be aware of the fact that we always have an incentive to set a small scope.

Our company’s case is not a case that can be mentioned in the context of innovation, but even in such a familiar case, the “bias to set a small scope” was at work in me, as I mentioned earlier.

Improvement and innovation are the same in terms of “intentional change,” but it is important to note that in everyday corporate and organizational activities, there is a tendency to focus on improvement (small changes) rather than innovation (big changes).

In this article, I talked about the points to keep in mind when setting the scope of improvement and innovation, along with specific examples. In the next article, I would like to talk about the second part of the improvement and innovation process, which is the use of meta-consciousness and observation of phenomena.

Here are the quests of the day. (If you’d like, please share your thoughts in the comments.)

・In your experience, even though you have a bias toward “small change” rather than “big change,” what was the experience in which you deliberately chose “big change”?

・In that experience, what kind of conflict did you have before you chose to make the big change? What were the key points that enabled you to overcome those conflicts?

Bunshiro Ochiai



Bunshiro OCHIAI

Founder and CEO of a training company, Alue | MS in Particle Physics. | BCG | Questing “What is the paradigm for integrating contradictions in management?”