Principles of Continuous Improvement: The Agile Handbook

Jamessina Hille

Director of Marketing
continuous improvement principles, agile principles continuous improvement

We’ve heard much recently about digital transformation and the need for businesses to achieve transformative change — and certainly, it’s been necessary amidst the market volatility we’ve experienced across industries. Gartner reports that nearly 70% of enterprise boards of directors have accelerated transformation efforts following COVID-19 disruption.

But transformation isn’t easy. Companies that seek to transform often become overwhelmed before they can even get started.

Interestingly, there is a more approachable, practical, and achievable alternative that seems to be getting lost in the discussion: agile and continuous improvement.

You may have heard these terms as they relate to software development — but what about larger business strategy? Can companies adopt continuous improvement principles to transform their businesses over time?

The answer is a resounding yes — and they’re often a lot more ready to do it than they are to implement immediate, large-scale, transformative change. In fact, it’s a culture of continuous improvement that often sets the foundation for transformation readiness.

In the sections that follow, we’ll explore the key principles of continuous improvement that help businesses achieve big change built on incremental, everyday success.

Quick Takeaways

  • Modern continuous improvement is based on the Japanese concept of Kaizen and the Deming Circle of Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA).
  • Agile development principles can be applied to larger enterprise IT strategies.
  • Continuous improvement requires early and continuous delivery rather than perfection on the first attempt.
  • Diverse perspectives gained through cross-functional communication drive innovation.
  • Streamlined, simple processes and strategies are easier to adjust and improve.
  • Especially when agile is new to your organization, dedicated time should be set aside to reflect regularly on progress.

What’s the relationship between agile and continuous improvement?

Continuous improvement as we know it today is rooted in the Japanese concept of Kaizen, or a commitment to continual betterment in everything you do. It was first popularized in the West by American engineer William Edwards Deming after he worked in Japan following World War II.

As Deming applied Kaizen to his own work, he developed a framework around it now known as the Deming Circle and widely used in enterprise strategy today. The Deming Circle is comprised of a four-step Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle:

  • Plan – Understand the problem you need to solve and the resources you have to solve it. Create a plan of action.
  • Do – Execute the plan on a small scale and address potential issues along the way.
  • Check – Evaluate the success of your actions and decide if they have accomplished what you intended.
  • Act – Carry out your full plan.

The Deming Circle: Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA).

In recent years, continuous improvement has gotten more attention as agile development has emerged onto the scene, providing a perfect framework for applying its principles. Agile focuses on establishing a culture of collaboration and innovation. It implements accelerated project management methods that lend themselves to the PDCA cycle, such as sprints, continuous flow, constant feedback, and the like.

Continuous improvement became a core part of agile methodologies — a goal companies aimed to achieve through agile practices. Today, agile and continuous improvement are often referred to as paired practices, and increasingly, companies are applying them with a wider scope beyond software development.

6 Key Principles of Continuous Improvement

If you work in the IT world, you’ve likely heard of the Agile Manifesto and the 12 principles it outlines. While we won’t walk through every one of those twelve in full detail here, we’ll discuss some of their most important takeaways and how they can be applied to larger enterprise IT strategies.

Execute early and continuous delivery

Perhaps the most foundational agile and continuous improvement principle, early and continuous delivery shifts focus away from perfection and generates faster ROI by leveraging end user feedback to improve.

The same can be said for internal stakeholders — executive leaders, system users, and other contributors across the organization. Rather than wait until every detail is ironed out (and likely still not perfect), companies should aim to implement great ideas and strategies as soon as possible, improving upon them as they go based on feedback from those who are impacted.

Take a value-first approach

Agile methodologies like sprints and CI/CD allow for faster, more frequent value delivery. Rather than go through the motions of a process or wait until the end to deliver value, the agile mind thinks: how can I create valuable change right now? What incremental steps or strategies can be put in place to achieve it?

Communicate proactively

Officially, The Agile Manifesto states that “The most effective way of communication is face-to-face.” While this was much more practical when the Manifesto was written in 2001, the spirit of the statement remains the same in modern business.

Talking in person when possible, on a face-to-face video, or even directly by phone helps to avoid the common miscommunications or delays that occur on digital channels. Doing so proactively ensures that problems or challenges aren’t left unaddressed while their negative impact grows larger.

Proactive communication also powers the next important principle of continuous improvement: a collaborative culture.

Maintain a collaborative culture

Companies still operating in silos are undoubtedly slower, less agile, and frankly falling behind their more adept competitors. For agile strategies to be implemented, collaboration must be present. Why? Because innovation and problem-solving are made possible through many and diverse perspectives.

To do it, businesses should create cross-functional project teams, encourage collaboration across departments, and create easy channels for communication that make it easy for teams to work together.

Keep it simple

When you’re operating with an agile mindset, there’s no room for unnecessary complexity. As it applies to IT infrastructure, internal processes, and reporting methods, it’s best practice to keep things as simple and streamlined as possible.

Complexity only leads to wasted time, wasted money, and a harder time finding ways to quickly improve and adjust when needed.

Reflect and adjust regularly

Continuous improvement doesn’t just happen. It requires effort, attention and (especially at first) dedicated time for reflection. To make agile and continuous improvement principles a core part of their business strategy, companies must find time for their teams to discuss and reflect on their efforts together.

Over to You

One sure way for SAP users to power continuous improvement at their organizations is with a modernized, cloud-based IT infrastructure. Protera can help you modernize your applications, infrastructure, and operations to achieve business outcomes with confidence.

Contact us today to schedule your virtual solutioning session today!

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