What is the difference between a flash-in-the-pan success and one that lasts?

For Plain Vanilla, the studio behind trivia game QuizUp--which famously signed up a million users in its first week on the App Store--it was stopping in the midst of all their success, sitting back, and asking, "How can we do even better?"

What they and others have recognized is that the time to think about improvement and doing things better is when it least feels like you need it. Most companies are focused on fixing problems as they appear, but sustained success is about incrementally building upon things that already work.

When it comes down to it, it's all about small, concrete improvements, or what the Japanese call kaizen.

Creating a culture of kaizen

When American car manufacturing executives visited Toyota plants in Japan for the first time, they were shocked by what they found. Every employee on the manufacturing line had access to what was called an andon cord--a rope that ran along the entire factory and when tugged, immediately ceased all production.

This was unheard of in Western manufacturing. Since Henry Ford, the assembly line had been designed to always stay on to ensure faster and easier product assembly. You never stopped the line.

The American idea of efficiency was producing a high yield as quickly as possible. But the visiting executives were most shocked by the fact that the yield in the Tokyo factories was high too--and furthermore, with little waste and few errors.

Toyota employees speak up when they see room for improvement on or off the assembly line. The company reports that their 67,000 employees submit over 700,000 suggestions for internal improvement each year, about 99% of which are implemented.

For Toyota, small improvements make all the difference. Every employee is not only able to stop the line or make a suggestion, they have a responsibility to Toyota to actively improve all the time.

QuizUp is putting kaizen to work

The Japanese word kaizen simply means "change for better." In the context of business, it refers to continuous self-improvement.

The kaizen mentality stresses attention to detail and commitment to improvement on all levels of work. No detail is too small to improve upon and no employee should feel that an improvement is beyond his or her jurisdiction.

QuizUp paid attention to detail and it paid off. They discovered that players were most hooked when they used the social features of the game--connecting them with Facebook, Twitter, and their address books. Players who use these features within the first 7 days of playing have 60% higher retention than those who don't.

Studying behavioral trends like this one could be an obscure process that only data scientists could handle--but QuizUp used Amplitude's data analysis tools. These are specifically designed to be more widely accessible to people without highly technical backgrounds.

Armed with this knowledge, QuizUp worked toward a redesign of the app that made the social features easier to find and use. Two years later, the team launched QuizUp 2.0.

The process of redesigning also greatly benefited from QuizUp's policy of "process meetings," in which everyone involved--the app managers, developers, data scientists--meets on a regular basis to discuss potential improvements. These meetings fueled communication of ideas and commitment to improvement from every angle of the company. This newer, better version of the app was created from a company-wide drive to question data and seek better answers to their own questions about their game.

QuizUp now has over 40 million users, and they know how to make them come back.

Turning mentality into action

Everyone wants one big quick fix, but when these fail, you're left empty-handed and back where you started. Small improvements produce results that you can see immediately, and this is gratifying and encouraging.

The biggest challenge to making kaizen work for your company is making the intention a practicable policy. But if you act on these principles every day, every member of your company will see higher quality work--and when you zoom out, you'll see a more productive culture for your whole team.