Continuous Improvement and the Pursuit of Excellence

We relentlessly pursue continuous improvement and excellence in projects, products, processes, and services, and define success as getting the right things done well.

  • Strive for excellence and great things 
    • Encourage innovation, creativity, and being leading edge
    • Make the ordinary exceed expectations—give it your own special twist
    • Value design—of products, information, and organizations
    • Seek out systemwide and white space solutions
    • Take risks and try new things—use at bats
  • Relentlessly pursue incremental improvement
    • Never be satisfied—things can always be improved
    • Leave everything you touch a little bit better
    • Sweat the details—they make all the difference
    • Be process oriented—clock building is better than time telling
  • Get the right things done well
    • Value productivity, getting it done, and making it happen now
    • Drive projects with a sense of urgency and focus on closure
    • Measure twice and cut once—planning saves time
    • Foster a passion for progress and a sense of purpose
    • Persevere and get things done—good things take time
    • Balance seemingly contradictory goals (e.g., “excellent” and “rapid”)

Processes and Programs That Support Continuous Improvement and the Pursuit of Excellence

Usability Testing

Usability testing is the assessment of a system in terms of learnability, ease-of-use, flexibility, safety, effectiveness, efficiency, and the attitude of users to the system. Our usability department uses various techniques, such as paper prototype testing, focus groups, questionnaires and surveys, as well as our onsite usability lab, to provide empirical feedback on prototype and working versions of software. This allows for a structured approach to gathering data about how users interact with software.

Design Review

At MathWorks, a “design review” is an opportunity for others to help you to analyze and improve something, whether it is a plan you have prepared or a product concept or a design you have developed. We believe in teamwork, and reviews are a way to get a whole team on the same page. We also believe that even the best idea from the most senior person can be improved by having lots of others look at it, challenge it, and recommend ways to improve it. Be prepared—your first design review can feel overwhelming. You’ve been working on something for a long time, you’re proud of it, and all of a sudden a group of people make all sorts of suggestions and point out lots of weaknesses. Try to avoid being defensive—everything can be improved, and lots of plans have flaws that are not easy to spot. The members of your design review team are there to help you. If you are a member of a design review team, your role is to speak up, be constructive and specific, and try to come up with alternative suggestions. It may be frustrating and embarrassing to be told that you didn’t pack your parachute correctly—but you’re better off if someone points it out!


This is another term for “post-game analysis.” At MathWorks, we like to end meetings or projects with a brief “retrospective” discussion, during which we analyze what went well, what went poorly, and how we might improve the next such meeting or project.

Paper Prototyping

This is a process for expediting the development of user interfaces (UIs) in software products. Instead of writing code to prototype the UI, simple ink-and-paper, cut-and-paste techniques are used. This leads to a much more rapid development cycle. Paper prototyping is taught in a course that is taken by most developers.


At bat

This term is taken from American baseball, where an “at bat” is when a person gets a turn to swing at the ball and get a hit. An analogy might be in European football where players take a “shot on goal.” In both sports, even the best players miss more often than they succeed, so they must make multiple attempts and not be afraid to fail.

When someone says, “That's a good at bat,” they mean “Go ahead, that sounds like something worth trying. And you won't be penalized if it's not a success.”

Clock building is better than time telling

“Clock building” means that we are process oriented. We spend time improving our systems, guidelines, and procedures because we believe this is key to efficiency, speed, and quality. We care about improving the process, not just getting things done once. “Clock building is better than time telling” comes from the book Built to Last, where it refers to the idea that having a great idea or being a charismatic or visionary leader is “time telling”; building a company that can prosper far beyond the presence of a single leader and through multiple product life cycles is “clock building.”

Leading edge

The foremost position in a trend or movement. (The front edge of an airplane wing is called the “leading edge.”)

Special twist

Special twist means doing something with panache, flair, or vibrancy. When people put extra effort into an ordinary task—for example, answering an email message—it can make a big difference.

Sweat the details

“Sweat the details” means to work hard to ensure that all the details are correct. It means to be concerned about the little things and to remember that details matter.

Value productivity

Value productivity means appreciating output, results, and concrete and measurable achievements.

White space

“White space” means areas that are not the responsibility of a specific group or department. (If you imagine a traditional organization chart, the “white space” is the area on the page between the boxes and lines.) A “systemwide” solution usually requires several groups to work together to implement an idea.

Here is a simple but typical example: many years ago, we had calendars posted outside conference rooms in Natick. If you wanted to schedule a meeting, you had to walk around and look at all the calendars. The problem was solved when the web team discovered a web-based software application and worked with Office Services and Systems Services to implement it.

This was a “white space” problem for two reasons: first, because no group was responsible for the efficiency of the process; and second, because none of the groups could have solved it without the other groups.

We especially prize systemwide solutions such as this because they can make large and lasting improvements. That's why we should seek out such solutions. We try to find ways to do things that take the whole picture into account, look along multiple dimensions of a problem, and seize opportunities that emerge from the white space. This is where magic can be found.