Continuous Improvement

Is it a Method or a Platitude?

What does it take to be good at digital? The ability to make good decisions, of course. If you run a pro football team and you make consistently good decisions about players and about coaches, and they, in turn, make consistently good decisions about preparation and plays, you’ll be successful. Most organizations aren’t setup to make good decisions in digital. They don’t have the right information to drive strategic decisions and they often lack the right processes to make good tactical decisions. I’ve highlighted four capabilities that must be knitted together to drive consistently good decisions in the digital realm: comprehensive customer journey mapping, analytics support at every level of the organization, aggressive controlled experimentation targeted to decision-support, and constant voice of customer research. For most organizations, none of these capabilities are well-baked and it’s rare that even a very good organization is excellent at more than two of these capabilities.

The Essentials for Digital Transformation
                          The Essentials for Digital Transformation

There’s a fifth spoke of this wheel, however, that isn’t so much a capability as an approach. That’s not so completely different from the others as it might seem. After all, almost every enterprise I see has a digital analytics department, a VoC capability, a customer journey map, and an A/B Testing team. In previous posts, I’ve highlighted how those capabilities are mis-used, mis-deployed or simply misunderstood. Which makes for a pretty big miss. So it’s very much true that a better approach underlies all of these capabilities. When I talk about continuous improvement, it’s not a capability at all. There’s no there, there. It’s just an approach. Yet it’s an approach that, taken seriously, can help weld these other four capabilities into a coherent whole.

The doctrine of continuous improvement is not new – in digital or elsewhere. It has a long and proven track record and it’s one of the few industry best practices with which I am in whole-hearted agreement. Too often, however, continuous improvement is treated as an empty platitude, not a method. It’s interpreted as a squishy injunction that we should always try to get better. Rah! Rah!


Taken this way, it’s as contentless as interpreting evolutionary theory as survival of the fittest. Those most likely to survive are…those most likely to survive. It is the mechanism of natural selection coupled with genetic variation and mutation that gives content to evolutionary doctrine. In other words, without a process for deciding what’s fittest and a method of transmitting that fitness across generations, evolutionary theory would be a contentless tautology. The idea of continuous improvement, too, needs a method to be interesting. Everybody wants to get better all the time. There has to be a real process to make it interesting.

There are such processes, of course. Techniques like Six Sigma famously elaborate a specific method to drive continuous improvement in manufacturing processes. Unfortunately, Six Sigma isn’t directly transferable to digital analytics. We lack the critical optimization variable (defects) against which these methods work. Nor does it work to simply substitute a variable like conversion rate for defects because we lack the controlled environment necessary to believe that every customer should convert.

If Six Sigma doesn’t translate directly into digital analytics, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it and cadge some good ideas, though. Here are the core ideas that drive continuous improvement in digital, many of which are rooted in formal continuous improvement methodologies:

  1. It’s much easier to measure a single, specific change than a huge number of simultaneous changes. A website or mobile app is a complex set of interconnecting pieces. If you change your home page, for example, you change the dynamics of every use-case on the site. This may benefit some users and disadvantage others; it may improve one page’s performance and harm another’s. When you change an entire website at once, it’s incredibly difficult to isolate which elements improved and which didn’t. Only the holistic performance of the system can be measured on a before and after basis – and even that can be challenging if new functionality has been introduced. The more discrete and isolated a change, the easier it is to measure its true impact on the system.
  2. Where changes are specific and local, micro-conversion analytics can generally be used to assess improvement. Where changes are numerous or the impact non-local, then a controlled environment is necessary to measure improvement. A true controlled environment in digital is generally impossible but can be effectively replicated via controlled experimentation (such as A/B testing or hold-outs).
  3. Continuous improvement can be driven on a segmented or site-wide basis. Improvements that are site-wide are typically focused on reducing friction. Segmentation improvements are focused on optimizing the conversation with specific populations. Both types of improvement cycles must be addressed in any comprehensive program.
  4. Digital performance is driven by two different systems (acquisition of traffic and content performance). Despite the fact that these two systems function independently, it’s impossible to measure performance of either without measuring their interdependencies. Content performance is ALWAYS relative to the mix of audience created by the acquisition systems. This dependency is even tighter in closed loop systems like Search Engine Optimization – where the content of the page heavily determines the nature of the traffic sent AND the performance of that traffic once sourced (though the two can function quite differently with the best SEO optimized page being a very poor content performer even though it’s sourcing its own traffic).
  5. Marketing performance is a function of four things: the type of audience sourced, the use-case of the audience sourced, the pre-qualification of the audience sourced and the target content to which the audience is sourced. Continuous improvement must target all four factors to be effective.
  6. Content performance is relative to function, audience and use-case. Some content changes will be directly negative or positive (friction causing or reducing), but most will shift the distribution of behaviors. Because most impacts are shifts in the distribution of use-cases or journeys, it’s essential that the relative value of alternative paths be understood when applying continuous improvement.

These are core ideas, not a formal process. In my next post, I’ll take a shot at translating them into a formal process for digital improvement. I’m not really confident how tightly I can describe that process, but I am confident that it will capture something rather different than any current approach to digital analytics.


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