Improvement vs innovation: Should the difference matter in government?

How does continuous improvement relate to innovation, particularly in the context of the public sector transformation? Can governments innovate without having a culture of continuous improvement, or should improvement and innovation be placed on the same continuum, just at different scales?

By Michael Deichsel, Director, Business Integration and Improvement team, Department of Transport, Victoria

Continuous improvement (CI) at the Department of Transport is defined by a mindset and an urge to continuously challenge and improve operational processes. These can be small, incremental changes to improve the quality of process outcomes, reduce defects, rework, or reduce the processing time to deliver an outcome.

The objective of the Business Integration and Improvement branch – which I lead – at the Department of Transport is to not only deliver continuous process improvement projects within the Department and its partners, but to also evolve a culture of CI across it. This is achieved through a combination of project delivery and capability development, as well as establishing a community of practice focused on engagement and knowledge-sharing.

Providing this environment empowers employees to challenge the status quo of long-standing processes and enables employees to take initiative towards improving such processes.


This ‘mental model’ for improvement focuses on existing processes and a desire to ‘do better’ through continuous steps of improvement.

Over the last 12 months, the Business Integration function delivered 36 improvement projects. These have ranged from reducing the processing time for MYKI (the state’s public transport ticketing system) refund requests, projects contributing to the improvement of road safety, to the implementation of robotic process automation (RPA) to speed up the processing time of certain requests from the Victorian public.

The definition of sustainable innovation talks about the desire to get better at what we’re doing. This is very similar to continuous improvement; however, we prefer to regard innovation as creating or doing something fundamentally different or new to what we’ve done or experienced before.

In our experience, we see continuous improvement as the ‘little brother’ of innovation.


Each improvement by itself is about doing something fundamentally different to contribute to bigger process flows in order to achieve improvement. A series of improvement activities can then result in innovation.

By fostering a culture of continuous improvement and creating a mindset to improve existing process ecosystems on a small scale, we encourage and cultivate a mindset of innovation among our employees.

So, it is not simply a matter of improvement vs innovation. However, through developing a culture of continuous improvement, we are supporting the organisational capability to innovate, to look for fundamentally different solutions, and to evolve on continuous as well as break-through levels.

Michael Deichsel will be featured at the upcoming FST Government Victoria 2022  conference.

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