What Does Continuous Improvement Really Mean?

Continuous improvement is central to the software development process, ensuring that businesses deliver high-quality products efficiently and cost-effectively.
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Practically all organizations are looking to find ways to improve their business operations, increasing the quality of their products and services, cutting costs, heightening skills, and collaborating effectively and efficiently.

Any business can adopt a continuous improvement model in order to achieve these goals. However, increasingly, it has become central to software development. It’s at the core of methodologies like DevOps and agile, and it’s foundational to the principles of the software development process.

Continuous improvement reaps numerous rewards, including those mentioned above. So, what, exactly, is it? And how can you implement it at your organization? Here’s what you should know.

Continuous Improvement: A Definition

Continuous improvement is also known as continual improvement and refers to a commitment to constant and neverending advancement of operations, products, and services. It isn’t a discrete term or event but an ongoing process that is embedded in the company culture and values. When effective, continuous improvement enhances key areas and boosts overall productivity. 

Kaizen, meaning “change for the better,” is a Japanese term that describes this philosophy, popularized by Toyota’s adoption of the mentality in order to improve the business. 

Continuous improvement also focuses on eliminating waste from the company’s processes while simultaneously ensuring more value. This involves streamlining workflows and reducing costs.

What Is Continuous Delivery?

Continuous delivery isn’t the same as continuous improvement, but the 2 philosophies are interconnected. 

Continuous delivery means producing software or other goods quickly, such that there are few or no hiccups and delays. 

It can also refer to automatic changes being implemented into software or products, including alterations to code, new features, and more. Teams integrate these changes at rapid speed, but they do so in a streamlined manner.

This idea, in some ways, falls under the umbrella of continuous improvement activities.

The PDCA Cycle

The plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle is one of the most used and well-known structures involved in continuous improvement:

  • Plan: Plan how to instill change within the organization or smaller initiative.
  • Do: Carry out the plan via a test scenario.
  • Check: Evaluate the results of the test, and make changes accordingly.
  • Act: Implement the plan at a larger scale.

The PDCA cycle applies to a range of scenarios, such as when you’re initiating a new project, seeking to improve operations, or conducting an audit of your processes — in other words, any time continuous improvement becomes relevant.

What Does Continuous Improvement Look Like in Practice?

In the real world, continuous improvement involves a number of key elements. A company that adheres to this model promotes a culture in which:

  • Everyone is able and encouraged to contribute ideas, regardless of title or status. They are also encouraged to report problems that they believe the company can address through this model.
  • Businesses are constantly evaluating their operations.
  • No process should be considered “forever.” Companies must always take a close look at how they operate in order to spot problems.
  • Communication is underscored. Businesses may use a variety of platforms and tools to facilitate stronger communication.
  • The team keeps stakeholders involved with and abreast of all the goings-on.
  • The team continuously measures and assesses progress and adjusts as needed.
  • The team makes small changes, through which they can see results immediately.
  • A project manager or other leader oversees progress, with input from the team members.
  • Continuous improvement occurs at a day-to-day level, or at least with some frequency.
  • Every employee is accountable.
  • Solutions that are quick and easy to implement are often the best ones.
  • The company adheres to a “lean” mentality.
  • The philosophy is embedded into the organization and culture.

Of course, these “ground rules” can be adjusted to suit the needs of the individual business, its employees, and its operations.

Continuous Improvement in Agile

Continuous improvement is a core tenet of agile. Just look at principles 1 and 9 of the model:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.

According to the 2020 State of Agile Report, accelerating software delivery and enhancing the ability to manage changing priorities were the most-cited reasons for turning to agile, with the majority of respondents calling them the top impetuses. It’s no surprise, then, that continuous improvement is so fundamental in the software development process.

Agile isn’t just a methodology of delivering excellent software — it’s also a mindset, one that must embrace the idea of constantly improving products and processes. It’s about adapting to serve particular situations to the best of a team’s capacity and making progress toward achieving their goals in the process. 

Agile requires flexibility, which goes hand in hand with the idea of continuous improvement. Feedback — in particular its continual delivery — is another important aspect of agile, and when teams receive and act on that feedback, they are seeking to improve the way they work and the products they put forth.

The Benefits of Continuous Improvement

Ultimately, businesses can get a number of rewards by embracing continuous improvement, including reduced costs, greater efficiency, and increased value. Perhaps this is why so many businesses have made it the gold standard at their organizations.

This isn’t just an opportunity to see what’s going wrong — it’s also a chance to discover new things about the organization, ones that can contribute to a more successful business overall.

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