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Chances are, everything you are doing can be improved in some tiny, possibly even insignificant way. While constantly working to improve things is exhausting in itself, that effort typically pales in comparison to the mental effort you expend every day being annoyed by something you know isn't working for you. Continuous improvement is about taking a few minutes to fix a problem now so that you have extra mental energy to spend on something more productive.
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What is "continuous improvement"?
Continuous improvement, sometimes called continual improvement, is simply the act of always improving something. You'll most often hear it in reference to specific processes within an organization, such as an agile team of developers iterating their code daily.
However, continuous improvement can be applied to anything. Whether it's your work or personal life, you do a lot of things that can potentially be improved in some way, no matter how small. Did your presentation go perfectly? Great! Could it have been a tiny bit smoother had you shown up with spare pens for the audience? Look at that, even a perfect presentation has room for improvement.
Continuous improvement really shines when you realize it can be used for nearly everything.
I used it before I knew about it
For the majority of my life, if you asked what I hated most, I would say: "mild inconveniences." Sure, there were things I hated more, but these things came up constantly. It wasn't the massive, terrible, impossible-to-solve problems that kept me up at night. In most cases, I couldn't do anything about those, so I did my best to not worry.
On the other hand, mild inconveniences were everywhere. When we moved into a new apartment, the fridge door opened to the wrong side, so it hit the wall, couldn't open as far, and took up extra space. Literally every time I opened the fridge, I was the slightest bit annoyed. It was a mild irritation at worst, but it was one tiny thing that I knew would, in some part, add stress to my life every day until it was fixed.
So, I spent an hour or two removing the door and everything in it, flipping it around, and reinstalling it facing the other direction. It was a hassle and a lot of work and energy for something as mundane as my fridge door now opening from a different side. I certainly didn't want to spend all that time and energy making a seemingly mundane change, but for me, it was a cost-analysis situation.
Option 1: I ignore it. The dozen times a day I open my fridge, some conscious energy is spent thinking about how annoyed I am at the fridge door and having to work around the inefficient space. I will tell myself I should fix it, but put it off every time because it's not a big deal.
Option 2: I take the time to deal with it right then and there. A few wasted hours, but I never again will stress about that fridge door. In addition, rather than annoyance, I will feel a sense of pride and accomplishment whenever I look at the fridge. It was a problem that I fixed with my bare hands.
Mathematically, it seemed that Option 2 was the better decision in the long-term. All that I lost was the ability to binge a few extra episodes of something on Netflix for one day.
The thing was, this wasn't a one off. I did this constantly. For everything. If I was playing video games and I realized I had to reach too far to press one button, I would go into the settings and spend an hour figuring out how to best set up my buttons. When I realized my pillow was causing me a bit of neck pain at night, I eventually spent 30 minutes in bed in the middle of the day flipping through a series of pillows to figure out which one actually solved my problem.
The process of fixing all these little things is never fun and always feels like wasting time when it's happening. Why spend two hours fixing a fridge door when it's only ever open for 15 seconds at a time? Because those 15 seconds add up to be way more than two hours during the entire lifetime of that fridge. Additionally, the added mental stress, no more how minute, is still unnecessary and unwanted.
Realizing that not everyone worked that way
On the contrary to how I operated, I worked with a friend who admitted to being the exact opposite. For him, things weren't worth fixing unless they were massive. His fridge door equivalent went like this:
He, like many, parked his car in his garage. One day, the batteries in his garage door remote died. He had to go to work, so he opened the garage door manually, backed his car out, parked it in the driveway, and walked back into his garage. Then, he hit the button to close it, went out his front door and locked it with his house key, climbed back into his car, and drove to work. When he got home, he did this process all over again in reverse.
This went on for over 6 months.
For him, it was just a mild inconvenience, so he worked around it. It wasn't worth taking time out of a day to drive to a store, get the replacement battery he might need, and swap them out. When he mentioned this to me, I was baffled at first.
Though, I still understood. I am far from perfect and have put off simple fixes time and time again because I never had the energy or desire to fix it. Sometimes, it just doesn't feel worth it. Eventually, however, there will be a catalyst to fix it. Whether it's finally getting so annoyed that you fix it, or remembering you need a new battery when you happen to be at a store that carries them, or perhaps it's just one of those days where you have a bit of extra energy and you are feeling productive.
When it really makes a difference
So far, I've used examples of tiny, mundane things solely to get the point across that room for improvement is everywhere. Naturally, the bigger a problem is, the more likely it is that it needs to be fixed, and the bigger the reward will be for improving it. Let me give you my most significant example where I first consciously recognized the value of continuous improvement.
When I joined the Holacracy Implementation team at Zappos, myself and a couple coworkers took over the internal Holacracy training program. When we started, it was a week long, required a plethora of logistics and a huge budget, and regularly received poor feedback from those who went through it. The content was complex, confusing, and didn't provide much realistic value.
By the time we stopped providing that training, it was a six-hour session that replaced talking at with engaging workshops and fun games that educated. It took virtually no budget and very few logistics we had to plan around aside from scheduling what day it would take place. Best of all, it received almost exclusively rave reviews from the employees who went through it.
Needless to say, from start to finish, it looked completely different in every way. Despite that, only twice during the several years of providing that training did we do any major overhaul to the content. Instead, we dedicated ourselves to continuous improvement.
Now, what continuous improvement looks like and how to best do it will be different for every person and situation. Thus, while this isn't a definitive case of how to best do continuous improvement, here is how my team and I used it successfully:
When it comes to continuous improvement, feedback is more important than anything. Seek it constantly and ask for it from anyone willing to share. No person should be ignored when it comes to feedback. Sure, some people will have perspectives you will value more, but even a random passerby might have useful insight you hadn't considered previously. The more feedback you get, the better of an idea you will have about what is working and what is not.
Time to talk is time to learn
One easy thing you can do is schedule an additional fifteen minutes after every class, presentation, event, etc. Use that time to talk to your peers about what went great and what could be improved. Share how you felt and what you noticed. If you do it immediately after, it is still fresh on your mind and you'll have the most accurate information and can then address it most effectively.
Additionally, you don't need to talk only at prescheduled times. If you and your peers are standing around waiting for the class to start in five minutes, use that time to talk about what you might want to do differently. Giving everyone a five minute break? That's five minutes to chat about who you need to engage to make sure everyone is active and involved. We often changed things on the fly because of a quick chat right before and it worked better than the way we had done it previously.