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Continuous Improvement: the Ultimate Way to Create Efficient Processes

Explore the continuous improvement process and see how you can implement it practically in your business.

Geoff Walters
Writer at Motion
Mar 25, 2024
Table of contents

Are you considering implementing continuous improvement in your organization but unsure where to start? If that's you, you've come to the right place.

In this article, we'll explain continuous improvement in a business context and outline some best practices for adopting it in your organization.

We'll also highlight a tool that will help you make all your internal processes more efficient and bring a philosophy of continuous improvement to your whole team.

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What is continuous improvement?

Continuous improvement is the process of looking for opportunities to improve organizational efficiency by eliminating waste, optimizing the use of resources, and improving processes. Hypotheses are tested at a small scale, and then the successful ones are implemented company-wide.

The philosophy of continuous improvement originated in the lean manufacturing movement in post-war Japan and is particularly associated with Toyota. The Japanese call it "kaizen," meaning improvement or "change for the better." Kaizen proved so successful in the Japanese automotive industry that these ideas have since spread across the world.

Successful companies that adopt continuous improvement do so as a cultural philosophy that's embraced by everyone in the organization, from the CEO to the interns.

Benefits of continuous improvement

More engaged, more productive employees

When a business fully embraces continuous improvement, the philosophy pervades the whole organization. At Toyota, for example, every employee was encouraged to contribute to the process of kaizen through the Creative Idea Suggestion System. In other words, all your employees will buy into a mindset of open feedback and iterative growth.

Here’s how continuous improvement can help you

‎This is fantastic news for your employee satisfaction. When employees feel like their ideas about how to improve processes are valued, they're likely to be much more motivated — and therefore more productive.

A nice second-order consequence is that you can expect less employee churn. And the employees that do leave will be the ones that don't buy into continuous improvement. No loss there!

Fewer overages and less waste

If you eliminate unnecessary steps in your processes, your organization will waste less time and money on ineffective activities. Consequently, your team will get more done with the same resources, or fewer.

For example, in a manufacturing context, improving your processes might mean that you don't have to keep as much inventory on hand. Alternatively, if you're looking to optimize your supply chain, cutting out an inefficient process could mean that you spend less on shipping.

Increased agility and innovation

Making changes at a small scale allows you to innovate quickly. This makes you more agile than companies who make sweeping changes to entire divisions without testing them out at a small scale first. Consequently, you can ship products (or features) more quickly than the competition.

A good example of this phenomenon can be seen in the video game industry. Customers often get annoyed with companies who don't update their games or deal with bugs in a timely fashion. There's great value in being one of the rare companies whose operations are efficient enough to iterate quickly in response to customer expectations.

Improved customer satisfaction

Suppose you release products or features more quickly than the competition, and you only iterate on hypotheses you've thoroughly tested on a small scale. In that case, your customers will likely feel you do a great job meeting their needs.

Imagine two companies that create marketing analytics software. Both have a list of feature requests. One works through feature requests quickly using kaizen; the other doesn't. The one using kaizen will likely have happier customers.

Implementing continuous improvement with the PDCA cycle

The PDCA cycle (Plan, Do, Check, Act) is commonly associated with continuous improvement and is used by business owners to improve processes and business outcomes. The idea of creating and testing a hypothesis came from the scientific method and was popularized in a business context by W. Edwards Deming.

Plan, Do, Check, and Act symbols inside spiral of continuous improvement

‎Step 1: Plan

To begin the cycle, look at your organization critically and search for opportunities for improvement. You'll likely find plenty of these internally, but you could also consider looking at your competitors or the broader market for inspiration.

Once you've found a problem, formulate a hypothesis regarding how you might improve something for the better. This could be a new feature, a tweak to a process, a new hire, etc. To maximize the odds that your hypothesis is accurate, consider using the five whys to get to the root cause of the problem.

For example, let's imagine that Peter is a project manager in a small digital agency. He notices that his team is spending a lot of time chatting about tasks inside the PM app. He develops the theory that work would be more efficient if the chat happened on a dedicated communications platform, not inside the PM tool.

Step 2: Do

Once you have your hypothesis, it's time to test it. To do this, make a change at the smallest scale that lets you measure the results of the test. You'll want to avoid making changes at scale at this stage because to do so is prohibitively expensive and risky.

Continuing our example from earlier, Peter sets up a communications platform. He moves the SEO team over to the platform and tells them that from now on, communication about tasks can only take place on that platform. Notably, he hasn't made this switch with any other departments.

Step 3: Check

Once you've made the changes you wanted to, you'll need to measure, and wait a little to see if you get the results you thought you would — and whether your hypothesis was correct. It's not sufficient to rely solely on intuition here. You'll need to look at hard data as well.

In our example, Peter analyzes how quickly the SEO team built links this month, compared to last month. He also looks at the amount of task-related chats this month and compares it against the previous month. He finds that there is less chat and that links were built 20% more quickly than usual. He concludes that his hypothesis was correct (but notes that this could be a case of correlation, not causation!)

Step 4: Act

If your hypothesis is correct, it's time to implement your solution on a larger scale. If not, return to the drawing board with an improved understanding of the problem. Either way, you win.

Peter moves each team over to the communications platform. He does this team by team, one by one. This is partly to avoid overwhelm, and partly to continue verifying whether his hypothesis is correct — perhaps it was only true for the SEO team? Either way, he stays open to learning.

Continuous improvement best practices

If you want to successfully implement continuous improvement, here are some best practices to strive for.

Build feedback loops

If you want to get really good at continuous improvement, you’ll need to systematize the process of getting feedback so that it becomes part of your company culture.

Build feedback loops into continuous improvement

‎Iegular weekly one-on-one meetings between an employee and a line manager are one of the best ways of doing this. The employee should know that they can give whatever feedback they please to their manager, and vice versa. If you're using agile practices, retrospectives are another great way to systematize reflecting on feedback and review which parts of a feature launch worked.

If you're working as part of a product team, and you want to give users an opportunity to request new features, it's a good idea to make that capability prominent in the UI (user interface). You could even go as far as to highlight this in an automated product tour.

Involve every employee

To build a culture of continuous improvement, acknowledge that good ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere, not just senior management. You'll want to create an environment where every employee feels like what they say is listened to and has the confidence to speak up when they see problems.

The carrot goes further than the stick here: in other words, positive motivation goes further than negative motivation. Don't criticize employees for being shy and withdrawn or for being assertive. Instead, reward them for being honest and speaking up politely. Ideally, you make it as easy and painless as possible for them to speak up, so an anonymous feedback form for sensitive topics could be a good idea.

Leave no stone unturned

Companies sometimes get overly attached to one particular way of doing things — especially if that process has been around for a long time. This becomes problematic if the process is no longer achieving the desired results, or if the market has moved on since the moment when the process was created. The latter is often true in fast-moving industries like tech.

If you want to fully embrace continuous improvement, no process should be a sacred cow. It shouldn't matter how large or small the problem is that the employee is identifying; if your continuous improvement process is sound, you want to hear about it.

Taking this further, you should also be willing to receive feedback that shows you to be wrong or puts you in a bad light. Be open to it, regardless, and try to listen with an open mind.

Break down problems into small chunks

Don't try to make sweeping, organization-wide changes overnight. It won't work. Instead, break down the problems you see into the smallest steps possible (and encourage your employees to think in this way (that is, to see big problems, but break them down into smaller pieces), as well). Then form a hypothesis about that small step and make a small test to see if you're correct.

Even when you're implementing a hypothesis that you think you've proved to be true, take things one piece at a time. This will reduce overwhelm and also help you measure that you're going in the right direction.

How can Motion help with continuous improvement?

Our platform, Motion, can support you on your continuous improvement journey in hundreds of ways that affect all your processes, both large and small.

For example, Motion can create an optimal schedule for you and your team based on the parameters you give it (deadlines, resources, capacity, dependencies, etc). If you have a fire to put out and your schedule needs to be adjusted, Motion will readjust your tasks automatically. You won't need to do it manually.

‎Additionally, Motion will automatically schedule tasks on employees' calendars. This is valuable because employees are probably already in the habit of checking their calendars each day. Tasks will stay top of mind.

It also won't over-allocate tasks to key employees, because it knows their available work time based on the information you or they have provided. This reduces the risk of burnout, as well as associated risks like staff turnover, and the cost of finding and training new people.

If you need to add tasks manually, Motion takes all the bureaucracy out of the process, allowing you to input tasks with just one click, or ask Siri to do it (on an Apple device). If you have a recurring task, just tell Motion about it; it will remember and block time on your schedule.

Finally, there are a lot of teams who waste minutes or hours each day figuring out what to do next. Let Motion create the optimal schedule, for you and your team.

Putting all this together, Motion makes it more likely that your people will do what they need to, when you want them to do it, without wasting time on bureaucracy or filler activities, without platform-switching, and without burning out. That’s a recipe for efficient work, regardless of what process is involved.

Frequent questions (and answers)

Are continuous improvement and continuous delivery the same thing?

No. The two things are related, but different, as the following image shows:

Comparing continuous improvement and continuous delivery

‎Continuous delivery refers to being able to release product updates quickly. In this sense, it's a concept that's rather limited in scope.

By contrast, continuous improvement is more all-encompassing. It's about reducing waste, increasing efficiency, and speeding up learning across your entire organization.

As such, one could say that being good at continuous improvement will translate into being good at continuous delivery, but not vice versa.

What’s the difference between incremental and breakthrough continuous improvement?

In incremental continuous improvement, you tackle problems as you go, as they come up during your work. Breakthrough continuous improvement is the opposite: you plan it consciously in advance and then work through your plan step by step.

Both have their place. Incremental continuous improvement is inevitable in healthy organizations; no process is perfect, and conscientious team members will always see room for improvement as they go. Breakthrough continuous improvement is really helpful if you have critical business systems that aren't working and require multiple people to dedicate time to fix them. And when you transition, it’s significant.

What is a good example of continuous improvement?

As previously mentioned, continuous improvement originated in Japan as kaizen. Present-day Toyota is renowned for the Toyota Production System. This approach has been recognized globally for its focus on waste reduction, incremental learning, and operational efficiency.

Want to bring continuous improvement to your business?

Having read this article, you should now understand what continuous improvement is, how it can benefit your business, and some best practices for implementing it.

Remember that continuous improvement is a company-wide way of working. Ideas for improvement can come from any employee at any time. As a business owner, it's your job to facilitate a culture where this type of constructive input is rewarded.

If you need a tool to help you introduce continuous improvement at your company, we hope you'll take a look at Motion. Motion offers many ways to make your operations smoother, from automatic scheduling to easy task allocation. Don't believe us? Why not try out Motion for free and see for yourself?

Geoff Walters
Geoff has been a writer and content marketer for ten years and counting. The majority of his work has been with agencies and SaaS companies, where he's worn just about every hat there is. Outside of work, Geoff loves to play and design board games, and is currently learning to hold his own at badminton.
Written by Geoff Walters