What is continuous improvement?

Max Rehkopf By Max Rehkopf
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Flexibility is a big part of the Agile framework. If something isn’t working, you need to make changes. If something works well, you can learn from that and implement it into your next project. Unlike Waterfall project management, which is a sequential approach to project execution, continuous improvement allows you to make constant adjustments to meet changing project demands.

These little tweaks and changes you make are part of the continuous improvement process. Conducting sprint retrospectives and using lean process improvement can help you make the necessary changes to kickstart your company.

This guide will cover everything you need to know about continuous improvement and its role within the Agile framework.

Definition of continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is the ongoing process of analyzing performance, identifying opportunities, and making incremental changes to processes, products, and personnel. By analyzing and fine-tuning processes, your company can save time and deliver an overall better product.

Continuous improvement tools and methodologies

Integrating continuous improvement into your everyday work life involves adopting tools and practices that help you think from an improvement mindset. The best tools for continuous improvement live alongside your actual work and the best practices are those that you revisit time after time.


Agile retrospectives are arguably the first tool you should add to create a culture of continuous improvement. Team retrospectives open the door to conversations about what went well and what could be better. Many teams elect to do retros after projects wrap up or one-off retros focused on specific moments. The most effective teams hold retrospective meetings regularly and are independent of specific happenings. Holding a retro every other week is a surefire way to put yourself on a path of continuous improvement.

The Plan-Do-Check-Act Principle (PDCA)

Plan-Do-Check-Act, or PDCA, is among the most widely used tools in the continuous improvement model. “Plan” is your opportunity to identify an opportunity and plan for change. “Do” is when you implement the change on a small scale. “Check” is the process of using data to analyze the results of the change and determine whether it made a difference. “Act” is when you implement the change more broadly and continue to assess the results. If one stage did not work, simply begin again.

Software teams execute PDCA loops when they launch new features via “feature flagging”. Feature flagging is the process of rolling out a new feature to a small subset of real customers in a limited test. The test is to determine if test customers were more successful than those without the new feature. After checking on user data, teams act by rolling out that feature to all

5 whys or root cause analysis

It turns out that toddlers are onto something when they continually ask their parents, “why?” The 5 whys is a popular root cause analysis technique where the continued asking of why tends to uncover the root cause in five whys or less. Root cause analysis is useful for continuous improvement as it focuses your improvement efforts on the underlying causes rather than the symptoms. 

Kaizen and Kata

Those seeking the most flexibility can ground their process in the philosophies of improvement kata and kaizen. Improvement kata is a four-step process to create solutions to dynamic problems. Using a kanban board to track your progress through those four steps will help your team stay on track. Kaizen’s ten principles is another framework you can use to inspire your continuous improvement journey.

Lean manufacturing

Lean manufacturing is based on lean principles, eliminating wasted time and resources to ensure projects are finished and delivered on time. Lean revolves around five key principles:

  1. Defining value
  2. Mapping the value stream
  3. Creating a flow
  4. Establishing pull
  5. Seeking perfection

Amazon is a prime example of lean management. Workspaces are organized to maximize productivity, and products sold or shipped by Amazon are packed up and ready for shipment.


Adidas uses direct-to-store shipping to ensure customers can access a wide range of shoes while keeping a smaller inventory at each store. Then, if a customer wants a specific pair of shoes that aren’t in stock, they can be shipped directly to that Adidas store.

You can use lean project management software to enjoy these benefits within your company. 

Total Quality Management (TQM)

Total quality management (TQM) is a continuous improvement approach that increases customer satisfaction and employee involvement. By having everyone contribute to improving quality, companies can reduce errors and improve essential processes. This is the heart and soul of continuous improvement — minimizing errors and streamlining processes to improve quality.


The Agile methodology is a project management method that breaks larger projects down into smaller portions, known as sprints. After each sprint, the team conducts a sprint retrospective to make changes and improvements for the next sprint. Agile methodology relies on collaboration and adaptability, changing based on the results and feedback you’re getting.

Kanban method

The Kanban method helps teams visualize workflows, avoid overwhelming themselves, and improve efficiency. Kanban principles revolve around workflow visualization, including your backlog, current work, and finished work. This helps you keep work flowing steadily without overwhelming yourself or falling behind on deadlines. There are four essential Kanban metrics:

  1. Lead time
  2. Cycle time
  3. Work-in-progress
  4. Throughput

Benefits of continuous improvement

As a business, a continuous improvement cycle can help you make changes that increase employee satisfaction, efficiency, and overall quality. Here are some of the main benefits of the continuous improvement process.

Operational efficiency

When you have a lot on your plate, saving a small amount of time makes a big difference. Continuous improvement allows you to streamline processes to increase productivity, which means you can get more done in the same amount of time.

Enhanced employee engagement

Allowing employees to participate in the continuous improvement process can get your team more involved and increase employee engagement. Toyota launched the Creative Idea Suggestion System in 1951 to increase employee engagement through continuous improvement.

Reduced waste

Continuous improvement methodologies like the Lean methodology help reduce waste by trimming the fat off of individual processes. If you can whittle a process down to a few simple steps, you can save time and get more done.

Cost reduction

Eliminating inefficient processes and streamlining processes to make them more efficient can lead to cost savings. Applying lean principles to manufacturing means saving time and resources throughout the manufacturing process. Improving supply chain management can lower storage and shipping costs, increasing your bottom line.

Improved quality

With continuous improvement, you’re constantly working to enhance minor processes that ultimately elevate your product or service. By streamlining processes and doing more with fewer resources, you can deliver better products and services to each customer or client.

How to implement continuous improvement

Implementing continuous improvement in your company is a four-step process known as the PDCA cycle. Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

  • Plan: Start by determining where you can improve and creating a plan. For example, if your customers aren’t engaged, you can try offering a discount or promotional offer via email.
  • Do: During this step, you implement your plan on a small scale. This allows you to determine how effective your plan was without company-wide effects.
  • Check: Next, look at the results your plan delivered. Did it work? Reflecting on the results of your plan is one of the most critical steps.
  • Act: If your plan worked, you can implement it on a larger scale. If your plan didn’t work, you can go back to the drawing board and start at the planning stage again.

You can use other tools and techniques — such as the 5 whys analysis — to help you identify weaknesses and develop plans for continuous improvement. You can check out our 5 whys analysis template to help get you started.

Jira supports continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is a core tenant of Agile methodology, and Jira is designed for Agile teams. Backlog and Sprints allow you to break large projects down into smaller chunks. You can use Jira Scrum or Kanban boards to break projects down into even more manageable segments. There are various issue types within Jira, like Bugs, Tasks, and Sub-tasks, which cater to diverse project needs. 

Customizable workflows allow you to map Jira to your unique workflow, while real-time insights give you a better understanding of velocity, productivity, and other metrics. You can even import data from 3rd party platforms right into Jira, so you have a complete view of relevant data and info from other systems your team depends on.

Want to learn more about how Jira can help you focus on continuous improvement and make the necessary changes to remain agile? Try Jira Scrum Boards today.

Continuous Improvement: Frequently asked questions

What are some best practices for continuous improvement?

There are several ways to make continuous improvement work in your company. Some best practices include:

  • Communicate constantly
  • Capture and validate benefits
  • Focus on metrics that impact your business
  • Capture ideas for improvement
  • Use an idea funnel
  • Perform weekly reviews for projects

Getting everyone involved is an excellent way to maintain continuous improvement over time. You can train new employees on continuous improvement and use a continuous improvement program to allow employees to further their careers.

What is an example of continuous improvement?

Amazon is one of the best examples of continuous improvement in the industry. Amazon has used Lean methodology to optimize warehouses and streamline the shipping process. The company also has a unique approach that focuses on long-term customer satisfaction over short-term gains.

Apple conducts extensive user research to learn what people do and don’t like about Apple products. This research helps to continuously improve Apple products, adding new features that ensure Apple remains a top name in tech.

What is the main goal of continuous improvement?

The main goal of continuous improvement is to transform your company through small incremental changes. This improves employee engagement, boosts productivity and efficiency, and increases customer satisfaction. When you believe you always have room to grow, you can discover new opportunities for growth and improve your business.