This article will explore the difference between continuous improvement and breakthrough improvement. We will describe the benefits and best practices of breakthrough improvement and why your organization should set the bar high for achieving breakthrough improvement. 

Overview: What is breakthrough improvement? 

Continuous improvement is about many small incremental improvements. Breakthrough improvement involves major improvements in key business areas. These are often ongoing, long-term problems that can only be solved through focused, dedicated resources working for a limited period of time. Due to the investment in time and resources, breakthrough improvement projects are typically selected by a management group. A breakthrough improvement goal is expected to be 70% or more. 

Continuous improvement is often done by Six Sigma Yellow Belts and White Belts trained in the basic DMAIC method and tools. Black Belts and Master Black Belts are involved in breakthrough improvements. Green Belts can be involved in both types of improvement approaches. Design for Six Sigma projects are typically aiming for breakthroughs. 

Below is a table contrasting continuous improvement with breakthrough improvement.

Continuous vs Breakthrough Improvement

Breakthrough improvement projects are generally more complex, longer in duration, and require more in-depth study by a larger, more diverse team. Incremental improvement is usually achieved through the use of Kaizen events. The tables below contrast the two approaches.

Breakthrough Improvement


Creativity Adaptability
Individualism Teamwork (systems approach)
Specialist-orientation Generalist-orientation
Attention to great leaps Attention to details
Technology-oriented People-oriented
Information: closed, proprietary Information: open, shared
Functional (specialist) orientation Cross-functional orientation
Seek new technology Build on existing technology
Line + staff Cross-functional organization
Limited feedback Comprehensive feedback

Breakthrough improvement vs Kaizen

Comparing the columns above, you can make the following contrasts between breakthrough improvement and incremental or continuous improvement achieved using Kaizen: 

  1. Breakthrough improvement encourages creativity due to its result-oriented mindset and push for dramatic changes. 
  2. Kaizen encourages adaptability and teamwork due to its process-oriented mindset, which necessitates the ability to change and cooperate. 
  3. Breakthrough improvement focuses on a specialist and technology-oriented approach as opposed to Kaizen’s holistic, cross-functional, and people-oriented approach.
  4. Breakthrough improvement tends to have closed information and constantly seeks new technology allowing for dramatic improvements.
  5. Kaizens use open-source or shared information while attempting to innovate or build on the current technology at hand. 
  6. Breakthrough improvement can obtain feedback, but at a limited rate due to the large changes this strategy calls for, while Kaizen strategies can regularly gather feedback because small changes can be made through the process.

The following table describes the different characteristics of both the breakthrough improvement approach and the Kaizen approach to incremental improvement. 

Characteristics of breakthrough improvement vs Kaizen

These differences can be summarized as follows:

  1. Breakthrough improvement tends to have immediate short-term benefits as opposed to a steady and long-lasting effect. This approach to improvement will achieve large steps in improvement that necessitate an intermittent and inconsistent timeframe.  
  2. In the Kaizen approach, small steps are taken, and the timeline is consistent, which results in gradual and constant change. 
  3. The distinct characteristics are aligned with the breakthrough improvement strategy’s result-oriented mindset and the Kaizen strategy’s process-oriented mindset.

Benefits and drawbacks of breakthrough improvement 

Breakthrough improvement is designed to achieve significant results when compared to continuous improvement approaches. This will bring benefits to your organization, but there are some drawbacks as well. 

1. Can deliver new processes and products faster than incremental improvement 

Breakthrough improvement stresses new approaches, technology, innovation, and dramatic change. The focus on achieving significant improvement will result in quantum leaps in product and process design. 

2. Requires greater time and resources 

Many projects designed for breakthrough improvement will be longer in duration and will require greater investment in technology and resources. But the eventual level of improvement should make this approach worth the effort.

3. Greater risk

Continuous improvement relies on a step-by-step incremental improvement of current processes. Breakthrough improvements, if implemented, carry more risk and difficulty if the improvements don’t work out as planned. 

Why is breakthrough improvement important to understand? 

Many organizations are experienced in the methods and tools for continuous improvement such as DMAIC and DMEDI. Since there is less experience with breakthrough improvement strategies, it is important to understand some of the differences.

Expectation of 70% or better improvement

There is a commonly accepted expectation for breakthrough improvement of 70% or better. This stretch goal can be challenging.

Necessary resources  

Since the outcome of a breakthrough improvement project entails more complex and intensive efforts, you should understand the time and people commitment needed to achieve your breakthrough improvement goals.

70% improvement may not be achievable  

Don’t be upset if your goal is to improve by 75%, but despite your best efforts, you only get 60%. 60% is still pretty good and certainly better than the level of improvement you might have achieved using a simpler incremental approach.

An industry example of breakthrough improvement 

The new CFO of a consumer products company liked to go to Gemba at the different manufacturing sites to see what was happening. He learned one of the largest plants had experienced more batch failures than plants of similar size and product mix. Everyone in the plant had their own ideas as to why it was happening, but nothing had improved over the past five years.

The company had just kicked off a rapid continuous improvement effort based on Lean Six Sigma. Incremental improvements had not solved the problem, so the CFO suggested the company try a breakthrough improvement approach to solve this chronic production problem. 

A team consisting of a quality manager, a Master Black Belt, a cross-functional team of equipment operators, and process engineers began by closely analyzing the data that had been collected over the years and during previous improvement efforts.

The analysis led to interesting insights and outcomes. Taking a closer look at the data on batch failures, the operators commented there were a number of problems in product consistency occurring at the same time there were changes in raw material batches. Also, the team found the rejected batches had more than the expected amounts of flavor additive. Finally, the team concluded that the process of mixing flavor additives was one of the root causes for rejections. 

The team made some recommendations to develop and implement simple process changes for mixing in flavor additives as well as working with the raw material suppliers to be sure they were providing a consistent product.

The company succeeded in reducing batch failures from a yearly average of 120 to 12 for a 90% breakthrough improvement. By approaching the problems with fact-based analytical tools, the company improved the process generating net improvements worth approximately $1,450,000 of product that could now be sold and not rejected. 

3 best practices when thinking about breakthrough improvement 

It’s likely that your organization is already familiar with how to do continuous improvement. Here are a few tips to help navigate the process of breakthrough improvement. 

1. Be certain that breakthrough improvement is the right approach 

Given the increased complexity of breakthrough improvement, be sure it is appropriate for the issue at hand. 

2. Recruit the best team members you can get 

Projects geared for breakthrough improvement will require greater knowledge and the ability to commit to a longer duration. Be selective in who you choose as team members.

3. Leadership commitment 

Your leadership must be committed to support the efforts of the team and the concept of a longer more complex project. Don’t let their impatience detract from the longer term goal of achieving substantial levels of improvement. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about breakthrough improvement

What level of improvement is considered breakthrough?

70% or more improvement in the baseline performance of the process characteristic you are measuring.

Can I achieve breakthrough improvement with a Kaizen event?

Probably not. The 3-5 day duration of a Kaizen may not be long enough to do the depth of analysis and improvement necessary to achieve breakthrough improvement. 

Will breakthrough improvement always require large capital investments? 

No. Significant process improvements can be achieved through simple process revisions or elimination of non-value-added activities. New technology may be required at times to achieve breakthrough improvement, but you can often achieve significant results through process redesign.

Final thoughts on breakthrough improvement. 

A culture of continuous improvement will engage and empower people to make continuous and incremental improvements in their process. 

At times, you will want to achieve more significant improvements. Breakthrough improvement will result in improvement levels in excess of 70%. But, keep in mind these types of projects will require more time and resources and carry a greater risk. 

An organization with a culture of change and improvement will have a balance of both incremental and breakthrough projects.

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