What is continuous improvement?

Max Rehkopf By Max Rehkopf
Browse topics

Continuous improvement is the ongoing process of analyzing performance, identifying opportunities, and making incremental changes to processes, products, and personnel. 

When W. Edwards Deming first popularized the idea of continuous improvement, it was a broad philosophy where many different approaches contributed to a general culture of innovation. Today, continuous improvement is a foundational concept in a variety of project management philosophies like lean, agile, six sigma, and total quality management.

The continuous improvement model

The continuous improvement model is how you integrate continuous improvement into your day -to-day work life. Continuous improvement models bring structure, practices, and tools to businesses that want to live the values of continuous improvement. Three continuous improvement models that your team can explore are lean, kanban, and scrum.

Lean and continuous improvement

Lean is a set of management principles designed to increase efficiency by eliminating waste. In Lean, continuous improvement is known as Kaizen, a never-ending strive for perfection in everything you do. Kaizen originated in Japan and became one of the foundations of the Toyota Production System. Continuous improvement within lean focuses on enhancing the activities that generate the most value for your customer while removing as many wasteful activities as possible.

Kanban and continuous improvement

Kanban is an agile methodology that helps teams deliver work on a continuous basis. Kanban boards help teams visualize their work so that they can uncover blockers and keep work moving forward. Kanban teams are free to “pull” work into their workflow whenever their WIP limits or bandwidth allow. This flexibility allows kanban teams to rapidly prioritize improvement efforts with little disruption to their work and way of working. 

Scrum and continuous improvement

An agile methodology not often associated with continuous improvement is Scrum. Scrum focuses on incremental delivery of improvements and rapid integration of customer feedback which makes it a great fit with continuous improvement methods. The scrum ceremonies, like the sprint review and the sprint retrospective, help the team focus on improving their work sprint over sprint. 

Scrum artifacts, like the product backlog and sprint backlog, ensure that only the most important improvements are prioritized in the sprint. The reason scrum is not often associated with continuous improvement is scrum’s strong affiliation with software development teams and continuous improvement’s usual focus on business and manufacturing teams, but there is a lot of value to be mined by bringing them closer together.  

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.

How to use Jira and Confluence for continuous improvement

The simplest way to add continuous improvement to your work is to use a tool designed for continuous delivery. Jira kanban boards are flexible enough to manage the many types of workflows discussed in this article while being structured enough to ensure that work is moving forward. Confluence comes with templates ready to make retrospectives and five whys efficient experiences for in person and remote team meetings.