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Continuous Improvement: A Business Strategy Enabler

5 minute read
Myles Suer avatar
Companies that can successfully implement continuous development throughout their organization find dramatic strategic benefits.

Agile made its public debut in 2001 with the publication of the "Manifesto for Agile Software Development." Jeffrey Bussgang and Samuel Clemens described the moment in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article: “In 2001, a new approach to technology development was created by a daring group of developers. Called agile, the process put customers at the center of product development, encouraged rapid prototyping, and dramatically increased corporate speed and agility.” But Agile's reach would move far beyond the revolution in product development it sparked to inspire a revolution in corporate strategy and process, which leads us to continuous improvement. 

Specifically, Agile pushed business leaders to organize their business model and product development work around a series of experiments. Much like the strategic premise of Idealab, experiments allowed for the testing of critical hypothesis along the way including business value propositions. Bussgang and Clemens claimed that, “the methodology is continuous development, which, like Agile, began as a software development methodology. Rather than improving software in one large batch, updates are made continuously, piece-by-piece, enabling software code to be delivered to customers as soon as it is completed and tested. Companies that can successfully implement continuous development throughout their organization find dramatic strategic benefits.”

These benefits include:

  • Faster time to market.
  • Experimentation before buying.
  • Fixing errors faster.
  • Maximization of business productivity.

Continuous improvement has more recently been applied to data with the launching of DataOps. As a key enabler of strategy and technology change, the question is what is continuous improvement thinking going to impact next? To answer this question, there was no better place to go than the CIOChat.

Continuous Improvement: An Opportunity for Leadership

While CIO Milos Topic sees the notion of continuous improvement as applying everywhere. He said continuous improvement concepts should be applied first to “leading and communicating the vision, providing resources, empowering people to lead and aligning themselves with projects and services.” CIO Cathleen Curley agreed, stating everything should start “with where can I continuously improve as a leader and coach, where can our services be better, and how can I help teams and people continuously evolve.” Today’s CIO, said former CIO Tim McBreen, “is a business leader as well as a technology leader. They need to be covering the full spectrum of business and technical as well as process and people. In a lot of top companies, they are the top thinker person for all business improvements as well as innovation.” To do this, CIOs need to first do what Whitney Johnson suggests: “disrupt themselves.”

Related Article: How Playing 'Find the Bottleneck' Can Lead to Business Agility

Building Team Skillsets

In "Future Shock," Alvin Toffler suggested that the life of knowledge and skills is becoming shorter and shorter. For this reason, former CIO Joanna Young said, “effective leaders prioritize continuous improvement in their people’s skill sets. They, also, provide “the gift of time and budget to attaining new knowledge and skills. Clearly, standing stationary creates a death of business relevance. And business relevance is something that every CIO is spending calories trying to build.”

Optimization of Processes

With leadership improvement and skills development covered, former CIO Ken LeBlanc gets down to business. In his view, continuous improvement frameworks help with “process optimization, service and delivery costs, operating models, and vendor/partner management." However, continuous process improvement, said CTO Stephen diFilipo, “must be include a larger context, the business ecosystem. A maturity assessment across all business operations, not just IT, will determine likely opportunities for CPI, beyond the obvious low-hanging fruit.”

CIO Pedro Martinez Puig agreed, saying he “has found process management a perfect field to apply the continuous improvement methodologies. Combined with the voice from our customers coming from Net Promoter Score or Social Listening, the circle of improvement can swiftly lead to increased efficiency and better products for customers.”

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: What Agile Teams Bring to the Digital Workplace

Prioritization of Continuous Improvement Opportunities

Continuous improvement, like everything CIOs touch, requires deliberate prioritization. CIO Justin Bauer claimed for this reason that the “CIO's responsibility is to take everything into account and focus their team on achieving short-term goals that meet the long-term objectives.” Several years ago, business strategist Derek Abell suggested that business planning should have three cycles: 1) long-range missions; 2) long-range functional strategies, and 3) one-year plans and budgets. Bauer is essentially suggesting the same approach, with the relationship between long term objectives and short-term goals.

To ensure this occurs, Francis suggested clearly aligning improvement objectives with business objectives. The next step is for CIOs to prioritize against these business objectives or run the risk of it becoming "too much, scattered.” Meanwhile, CIO Joe Sabado recommended taking “a holistic approach. Prioritization should occur through a systemic and holistic approach.”

However, CIO Wayne Sadin said optimizing existing processes is easy. However, most organizations have many processes crying out, "fix me!" "True transformation — of culture, products, markets, CX, EX — is hard. If we are honest, it is hard to envision, to plan, to support, and to do all at the same time.” Further complicating matters, “priorities will receive different answers for different organizations,” said Carrie Shumaker. “Effective prioritization involves not only good strategic ideas (opportunities abound) but mutual trust, persuasion, and cultivation of executive partners who are ready to co-sponsor.”

Parting Words

CIOs have adopted continual improvement thinking as a part of what they do. They believe that continual improvement needs to start with people and that disruption starts with CIOs. With these dynamics in motion, CIOs believe there should be a conscious prioritization process. Clearly, there are many opportunities for continuous improvement and innovation.

But CIOs must strike a balancing act, as they need to nurture change and continuous improvement skills at the same time. This includes the ability to embrace criticism, be great organizational communicators, have curiosity, creativity and empathy; understand change psychology, be students of their organization and practice critical thinking.

About the author

Myles Suer

Myles Suer is the leading influencer of CIOs, according to Leadtail. He is the director of solutions marketing at Alation and also the facilitator of the #CIOChat.

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