Why Continuous Improvement is the Heart of High-Performing Teams

Written by Airwalk Reply Delivery and Change Consulting Lead Steve Isbell 

Organisations strive to have high-performing teams delivering value regularly. They are looking to deliver faster and do more for less, to keep ahead of their competition and save costs. 

However, this isn’t easy. Teams take time to become high performing. Adopting an Agile Project Management approach and harnessing a continuous improvement culture will make all the difference.

What is continuous improvement?

Let’s get started with the definition of continuous improvement: it’s the process of making regular small changes and incremental improvements. 

Developing a continuous improvement culture, where learning and adapting is ingrained into a team links to the core of Agile Project Management and the Agile principles.

Adopting continuous improvement principles can give numerous benefits to any team, including:

  • Enhanced customer satisfaction through frequent feedback and iterative improvements.
  • Increased collaboration, teamwork, and employee engagement.
  • Flexibility and adaptability to allow the team to pivot if required.
  • Early identification and mitigation of risks and issues.

Adopting Continuous Improvement is a great goal to have. However, it can be tricky to know where to start and set teams up for success. Adopting these principles can help:

  • Start where you are: This sounds simple but is often not what teams do. This is simply reviewing your current processes and practices, and working out as a team, what is working well (and should be kept) and what isn’t (and should be changed). It’s great to have a baseline understanding of where you are as a team so that as you progress with your continuous improvement, you can see how far you have come. It can be hard to see this progression when you are making small, incremental changes, without establishing your baseline.
  • Keep it simple and practical: Understand why things are the way they are. Discuss this openly as a team and go with what feels right. Don’t overthink it! Apply this principle to each improvement. Keep improvements small, simple, and practical. Small, incremental, regular changes over time make a huge difference.
  • Work collaboratively: Teams are so much stronger when they work together. They often achieve more, quicker, when they collaborate on a shared goal. Agree as a team on what to focus on and work together on it.
  • Reflect, gather feedback, and adapt: Taking the opportunity to reflect and review at the end of each sprint allows teams to inspect how they are doing and adapt by agreeing on the next small improvement.

How can I build on these principles?

Adopting these working practices builds on the principles:

  • Have regular retrospectives: Taking time at the end of each sprint to reflect is a powerful technique to learn and improve. Keep them simple, make sure everyone has a voice, and keep them fresh. Document your observations and actions, as it's rich data to refer to. If feedback from the team starts to dry up, then change the approach. There are many techniques to help facilitate a retro. A quick online search will give you new ideas! These work well:
Type of Retro Description
Four Ls This format can be particularly insightful. The four L’s stand for Liked, Learned, Lacked, and Longed for. It’s best to get feedback from each team member at a time for each of the four L’s and then see what patterns or themes come up.
Sailboat This metaphor is a good way to help structure your retro. The team will compare their last sprint to a sailboat and identify what propelled it forward (like wind) and what held it back (like anchors). Improvement areas are likely to come from what held it back, but likewise, improving further what is propelling it forward is a good way to build on positive actions.
Start, Stop, Continue   This structure is great at turning a discussion into action. The team collaborates to determine what actions they should start doing, stop doing, and continue doing in future sprints.
Working and Stuck This is a simple method to help the team focus on things that are working and stuck. Things that are currently working (positive, neutral, even sliding into negative) and will continue to work in the next sprint. Some things might not be ideal but are still working. These could be great candidates for improvement. The stuck category is for things that are blocked, hampered, or reduce the team’s efficiency. These are areas to improve.
What went well  Another simple format to help the team focus on what went well and what didn’t go so well in the last sprint. It helps the team focus on outcomes and allows broader discussions with a lightweight structure to help shape them.

Start small: There is always room for improvement, so review how you are currently working. Once you have feedback, decide where to improve, remembering to keep the improvement small and then commit to it as a team. Implementing one small improvement each sprint can build positive momentum. Add this improvement as a story to an upcoming sprint and complete it as you would a feature story. Big issues often seem too large to tackle, try to break them down, identify small improvements, to tackle them in stages. 

  • Share learnings and positive achievements: Acknowledging when changes have worked and when they haven’t increases visibility and transparency. Share successes! However, not everything works. This is fine, reflect and go again! This is a key principle of Agile Project Management.
  • Get close to your customers: Understand your customers as well as you can and work closely with them. They will have valuable feedback you can use to improve how your team works. Share your learnings with them and track openly how you are delivering value for them.
  • Gain insight with metrics: Keeping track of how you are doing as a team can provide additional insight and opportunities to inspect and adapt. Keep it simple and focus on delivering value. Concentrating on Flow and understanding ‘waste’ such as blockers, bottlenecks, impediments, and hand-offs can identify new areas to improve (for further reading on Flow). Metrics that work well:
Metric    Description
Value What constitutes value differs for different teams. Measuring it is really important to understand whether your delivery is hitting the mark with your customers. Customer satisfaction, increasing customer/user activity, retention rates, conversion rates, or response rates can be great ways to track value. There will be many. Define what matters to you and your customers and track it. This metric encourages customer feedback and conversation on how the team is doing.
Velocity The number of story points completed in a sprint. It’s good to measure team capacity alongside this to provide context on how much time the team had to work on stories in the sprint.    
Work in Progress The number of work items started but not finished. Great insight comes from understanding how much, and for how long, the team has work in progress. Teams often start a lot of stories in a sprint and then struggle to finish them. If this is something your teams do, introduce limits on work in progress and focus on only having a minimal number of stories in progress.
Cycle Time Actual time spent on a work item from the start of the first task to the end of the last task. This helps identify if there are blockers, issues, or unexpected delays in your processes.
Throughput The number of work items completed in a sprint. The larger the number the better. This depends on the size of the items and encourages work to be broken down.
Improvements Tracking improvements identified and implemented over time is very insightful. Tracking what impact the improvement made is a good way to see tangible results.

What are the end benefits of adopting continuous improvement within my team?

  • Increased collaboration: Both within your team and with your customers. Sharing ideas, delivering improvements, and sharing successes, drives positivity in the team. Which also promotes agility and the effectiveness of delivery. 
  • Greater empowerment: High-performing teams often feel empowered, and this drives behaviours such as self-organisation, proactivity, and greater focus to succeed. 
  • Positive momentum: By starting small and continuously reflecting and trying to improve, a team can quickly start to build positive momentum. Happy teams often perform better. 
  • Greater agility: A key aspect of Agile Project Management is the ‘Test and Learn’ mindset. Regularly reviewing what needs to be improved, enables a team to pivot and change, to improve. ‘Test and Learn’ also promotes listening, which is an opportunity for feedback and improvement.
  • Delivering value faster: Continuous improvement enables a team to be more effective and efficient. Identifying repetitive tasks which can be automated is a great way to increase efficiency as well as to make time for more challenging and interesting work. Delivering value to customers faster should be the goal. 

What is the takeaway?

Adopting the principles and practices in this post should help you and your teams continuously improve. 

Encouraging an open mindset, regular communication, measurement and improvement, and a focus on continuous feedback, is the best way to drive a culture where everyone is striving to find the next improvement opportunity, to deliver greater value for customers.

Want to discuss this further? Get in touch