Iterative algorithms such as maximum likelihood expectation maximization (ML-EM) algorithm are rapidly becoming the standard for image reconstruction in emission computed tomography. The maximum likelihood approach provides images with superior noise characteristics compared to conventional filtered backprojection algorithm. A major drawback of the iterative image reconstruction methods is their high computational cost. In this paper, we develop a new algorithm called the improved ordered subset expectation maximization (IOS-EM) algorithm. This algorithm modifies the number of projections in each subset and the step size (i.e., the relaxation factor) for each iteration in order to recover various frequency components in early iteration steps. In the method presented in this paper, the number of projections in a subset increases and the step size decreases after each iteration. In addition, pixel data are grouped into subdivisions to accelerate image reconstruction. Experimental results show that the IOS-EM algorithm can provide high quality reconstructed images at a small number of iterations.