I was the General Manager of a Toyota/Lexus dealership in the mid-1990s when I first learned the Japanese word kaizan, which means “improvement.”

I remember discussing the Lexus LS 430 sedan, which had just been named Best Luxury Car by J.D. Power, with a visiting Senior Director from Toyota HQ in Japan. Instead of basking in the award’s glow, or talking about the many ways in which the LS 430 was superior to other luxury sedans, he had a single question for me: What can we do to make this car BETTER?

This conversation, along with Toyota’s ubiquitous culture of continuous improvement, has stayed with me throughout my career as a business leader and leadership keynote speaker. If you’ve done the work to differentiate yourself and get ahead of your competition, your work isn’t done—it’s just begun. If you adopt one business “next practice” this year, let it be joining the continuous optimization economy. Here’s what you need to know to stay on top in 2019.

1. Niche is Now.

As technology continues to welcome an ever-wider stream of products and businesses into the global economy, companies are being forced to take a closer look at their offerings—and in many cases, to narrow their focus. Instead of casting a wide net and hoping for strength in numbers, today’s ultra-saturated market requires an increasing level of specialization.

With this in mind, ask yourself this: what is your organization’s LS 430, and how can you focus your team’s energies on making that (and related products) even better than they are today?

2. Service is Everything.

Both of the industries I serve, as a corporate leader and leadership keynote speaker, are low-touch but high-effort. Though customer contact is relatively infrequent, the quality of those interactions must be held to the highest standard—full stop.

But regardless of what your company is selling, social media and mass connectivity have made responsive and sincere customer service paramount to sustained success. From your call center to social media community management, your team MUST be highly trained in “The Customer is Always Right.”

3. Process is Productivity.

Now that you’ve (in theory) scaled back your offering and beefed up your customer service, how else can you improve your business operations? I encounter all kinds of companies on the leadership keynote speaker circuit, and if they have one thing in common, it’s this: they never rest on their laurels.

Instead, they’re constantly looking for ways to improve their operations—whether it’s reducing the number of meetings, upgrading their project management software or enabling employees to work from home one day of the week. It’s a mindset, and one that I’ve had for many years: what worked last year is last year. What works better this year is a work in progress.

4. It’s Data’s Day.

Businesses have always thrived on data—it’s essential to the continuous optimization process, and critical to understanding where to go next. The difference with regard to business data today is twofold: the quantity of information and the quality of our understanding.

On the quantity side, more than 90% of the world’s data was created within the last year; new platforms and systems give us the ability to know more than ever before about…well, everything. On the quality side, since we’re evidently only using about 1% of that information effectively, data scientists are scrambling to create more powerful and user-friendly analytics—and that means a generation of useful new analytical tools are coming your way.

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