Continuous Improvement

Why removing frictions is a strategic activity and why customer feedback is essential in this process. Learn everything you need to know about continuous improvement.


What is Continuous Improvement?

CI (Continuous Improvement) is focused on enhancing activities that drive customer value, while continuously removing waste or solving issues that cause friction. The ongoing process of generating options to improve is done from the bottom up, the place where the opportunities originate. This results in a large number of relatively small improvements in the day-to-day processes.

The term Continuous Improvement originates from the Kaizen methodology, which in turn finds its origin in the combination of two Japanese words: Kai (improvement) and Zen (good). We lose a little bit of its meaning in translation, but over time Kaizen has become widely known as ‘continuous improvement’. There are dozens of books and thousands of consultants who each interpret Kaizen slightly differently. But at its core, we can always indentify these key components:

  • Improve the process. Rather than focusing on the end goal, people should put their energy into figuring out the best way to get them there.
  • Lead with evidence. An open-minded and experimental mindset is a great thing to have, but all Kaizen changes must be driven by data.
  • Anyone can spur innovation. From the CEO to the employee in the store or factory, every member of the team should have input on how to make things better.
  • There’s always a better way. A Kaizen project is never truly finished. Keep looking for ways to improve!

Kaizen practitioners are committed to staying aware of their surroundings, and feel empowered to step up and test data-driven alterations — even if doing so disrupts the status quo. The Kaizen approach also humanizes the workplace, and creates an environment where everyone feels free and empowered to contribute.

Although the original method is often applied to manufacturing processes, we can also use it to improve processes and interactions in the digital organization.

This immediately raises an important point: your continuous improvement initiatives do not need to be limited to, for instance, the checkout of your webshop. Instead, include everything that limits waste and enhances customer value. This also includes internal processes, tooling and data, and all touchpoints across the customer journey. 

If this potential scope sounds too good to be true, you can start by adjusting it to match your ambitions and capabilities. You could consider limiting yourself to improving the all touchpoints of the customer experience, a specific touchpoint such as the webshop, or a single solution (e.g. SAP Hybris or Adobe AEM). 

Never forget that the true strength of the Kaizen method is the fact that there are no limitations. The filtering mechanism is not based on scope but on business value, ensuring every domain in your organization is unrestricted when it comes to optimizing their business value.

Why is CI important?

Prioritize initiatives based on business value

CI focuses on business value instead of a list of predefined requirements. Since the business value of initiatives is liable to change, this means that CI is by nature an agile and dynamic process. CI doesn’t automatically focus its efforts on UX improvements or the implementation of new tools and processes. The focus is always on whatever has the best cost to value ratio for your business.

Small things matter

Companies tend to focus on big goals and outcomes, such as releasing a new product or service. These are the things they can grasp, plan, and allocate budget for. But these also tend to be the riskiest options. And even if a large project succeeds, the expected benefits or revenue usually turn out to be less impressive than anticipated, because reality is simply more complex than the models used.

 At the same time, both customers and employees encounter small frustrations on a daily basis, that could easily be fixed with a little attention or small allocation of resources: a confusing message during checkout, an internal administrative task that’s not adding value, or missing information about a customer that reaches out to you. There are a lot of small fixes and improvements up for grabs that can make everyone’s lives easier and enhance business outcomes. However, in a top-down managed organization, the large, expensive, and risky projects tend to suck up all the resources.  

The strength of Feedback driven CI is the ability to collect all these small issues and improvement options, prioritize them based on business value, and immediately start working on them. By grouping all these small issues, and embedding them in a process governed by a dedicated team, you will position them so they can actively compete with big initiatives, while at the same time giving each small issue the amount of attention it deserves. If done with full MT support and directed by a general sense of urgency, removing 100 small frictions can be a realistic strategic endeavour!

Feedback Driven CI

You can only learn and improve through feedback, a fact that is sometimes overlooked or simply ignored. “We’ll start focusing on our customers soon, but first we want to get this list of other improvements out of the way because they are so obvious”. The problem with this mindset is that this list of ‘obvious fixes’ never ends, and for every issue solved a new one is added.

How confident are you that you have a clear view on all feasible improvement options? And if you aren’t sure of the potential, how can you guarantee the existing list will give the best ROI? Without accurate and up-to-date input from your customers and organization, all improvement measures are based on a limited vision (full stop). There’s a real danger that you’re overlooking important options, quick fixes, and valuable opportunities. It’s common to lean heavily on a few select options based on personal experience, or advocated by the ‘loudest voice’ (often from the HiPPO* in your organization)( * The Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) .

The best way to counter this is by putting feedback at the core of your CI program.

Remember the Kaizen principles: anyone can spur innovation, and there’s always a better way. In the digital organization you can collect valuable input by setting up a structured feedback program, using a set of surveys and scorecards for instance, that continuously monitor the customer’s voice across different touchpoints, in addition to the employee’s input across the end-to-end process.

Using an application like Qualtrics can help you collect input from both your customers and employees across all touchpoints and channels, from all departments, in a well-structured and manageable way. This not only allows for insights into what is happening, but more importantly, also why they’re happening. This also improves the visibility of the project, by setting up custom dashboards featuring the initiatives and real-time results.

Return on Feedback

A word of caution - sometimes it might seem easy to collect feedback, so much so that we risk not valuing it enough and take it for granted. Always consider the time and effort the recipients put into giving you their valuable opinions and suggestions. Feedback isn’t free, and failing to deliver on it can easily backfire. To underline its importance, we came up with the term Return On Feedback.

Create awareness that collecting feedback isn’t free. It comes with the responsibility and promise to drive customer and employee value, with the end result of increased business value.

What business value did the feedback create exactly? Make the tangible output of the process transparent and accessible to both management and all participants. Quantify the results where possible, and explain why certain options didn’t make it to the top of the list yet.

Challenges of CI

Solving a bunch of small issues in a short timeframe might sound simple enough, but CI does come with its own set of challenges. Consider the following:

  • From a management perspective, CI is harder to grasp and quantify than a traditional project.
  • CI is managed based on business outcomes, not a set of functional and non-functional predefined requirements. This requires an entrepreneurial mindset from the team, which they may not be used to.
  • CI requires solid integration into the organization. Management support is important for setting the right preconditions, giving authority to the team and product owner, and freeing up resources for executing the prioritized initiatives.
  • Visibility within the organization is equally important, because the team needs continuous feedback in addition to support from the employees to get initiatives implemented and embedded in their day-to-day work.

Being aware of these challenges already gives you an edge when it comes to solving them.

How to make CI successful?

We already touched on the first Kaizen Principle: improve the process. Having a good process is a better way to success than simply focusing on the end goal. The key to a successful CI implementation is having a clear and correct process in place, based on accurate and relevant data. The latter should include both operational and experience data. Every process comes with its own share of pitfalls, but with the right preparation and a shared understanding of the method and its goals, you can make feedback driven CI a success.

Basically, a structured CI process should include:

  • A multi-disciplinary team
  • Clear business goals and MT buy-in
  • Reliable and up-to-date input data (O-data and X-data)
  • A measurable goal for every initiative
  • Flexible execution resources
  • Proper tooling

We’re sure you’ll agree this is quite a hefty checklist. 

Curious to learn more?

Get in touch to discuss how we can drive your digital success.

Contact Us