What is the difference between continuous improvement and continual improvement?

Nik LemmensBusiness Analysis1 Comment

continuous improvement and continual improvement

What is the difference between continuous improvement and continual improvement?

What’s the difference between continuous improvement and continual improvement? Is it mere semantics or something far more important?

All too often these terms are used interchangeably, however, there is a subtle but very important difference between them.

Both are focused on improving quality of processes and therefore productivity of an organisation. But they are not the same thing, although it’s not always clear to distinguish between the two as there is overlap.

Continuous improvement in the business sense relates to constantly driving change and incremental improvements.

Continual improvement means changes happening over a prolonged period time but in more distinct stages.

When reading other posts and literature on the topic the terms can be used loosely, which makes it all the more confusing. Here’s a brief overview that attempts to strip back the labels to their simple meanings.
The difference between continuous improvement and continual improvement
What is continuous improvement?

Continuous improvement is a technique for boosting efficiency of a process by cutting out waste and activities which do not add value. It refers to activity that continuously improves the functions of all employees or processes. It can be seen therefore as an ongoing effort in developing products, services or processes.

Embodied in continuous improvement are concepts such as the Japanese ‘kaizen’, Lean and 5S. It can be seen as a rolling, gradual, linear approach to improving business processes.

Quite simply it can be defined as the concept of “getting better all the time”.
What is continual improvement?

Continual improvement is premised on the thinking of W. Edwards Deming and his work with Japanese industry in the post-war period.

Things like the Shewhart cycle and later the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle were the basis of his work on quality management and hold fast today in the field of continual improvement. Today’s frameworks also include the likes of COBIT and ITIL.

Continual improvements means always improving, but doing it in stages – discrete jumps rather than granular change.

Continuous improvement is really only one aspect of continual improvement, which may also include ‘discontinuous’ improvements that could be radical or innovative – such as business process reengineering.

Continual improvement is an essential requirement – it’s one of the eight principles of the ISO9001 framework. “Continual improvement of the organization’s overall performance should be a permanent objective of the organization,” it states. ‘Continuous’ improvement may be a part of that, but not necessarily.

While continuous improvement is focused on small, gradual changes leading to better processes and productivity, continual improvement encompasses the broader concept of business process improvement in all its forms.

Image from DarkDay published under cc

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