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Continuous vs. Continual: What’s the Difference?

Nicole Radziwill

Is your improvement continual or continuous, and more importantly, does it matter for your organization’s quality management system?

Does your company engage is continuous improvement or continual improvement? Chances are, if you’re an ISO 9001 shop, your improvement is continual. If you use another framework for quality management (e.g. TQM, EFQM, or the Baldrige Excellence Framework), it’s more likely that you do continuous improvement.

Is there a difference between the two? If so, on a practical level, does it matter?

If you’ve had this question before, you’re not alone. In the May 2019 issue of ASQ’s Quality Progress, author Michael Reber takes a critical look at these two terms. He finds that the difference between the two constructs is time -- continual improvement happens on a regular or occasional basis, while continuous improvement is uninterrupted and ongoing.

He traces the roots of continuous improvement back to Hellenic Greece, where the philosophy of eudaimonism was identified. It says that “although a person will never reach his or her ultimate potential through the work that is his or hers to do, it is the journey to achieving that potential that defines the person. The journey is the purpose and meaning of a person’s life.” Through this lens, continuous improvement in organizations is an ideal, a visionary goal to be achieved -- while continual improvement is the incremental practice of getting there.

Since relentless, ongoing pursuit of improvement is a core value in most quality management frameworks, why did the word “continual” even end up in ISO 9001? In the late 90s, a Technical Advisory Group debating updates to the standard determined that auditors and regulators could not enforce true continuous improvement.

Even though ISO 9001 uses the word continual, other ISO standards refer to continuous improvement cycles. In fact, Reber reveals that on ISO’s web site documenting all its standards, continuous improvement is mentioned three times more than continual improvement overall. He believes that ISO should abandon the word continual in favor of its more historic (and more inspiring) alternative.

What should you do? Simple: keep improving and keep aspiring to improvement as a moment-by-moment habit in your organization. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what word you use -- but be aware that the distinction might be important to some people (like your ISO 9001 auditor).

Additional Reading

Freeman, G. (2019). Culture of Quality: Achieving Success with Tools, Processes, and People. Intelex Insight Report. Available from https://www.intelex.com/resources/insight-report/culture-quality-achieving-success-tools-processes-and-people

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). (2019). Baldrige Excellence Framework (Business/Nonprofit): Proven leadership and management practices for high performance. Available from https://www.nist.gov/baldrige/publications/baldrige-excellence-framework/businessnonprofit

Leavoy, P. (2011, June 7). Improvement: To be Continual… Or Continuous? Intelex Blog. Available from https://blog.intelex.com/2011/06/07/improvement-to-be-continual-or-continuous/

About the Author: Nicole Radziwill is the Vice President, Global Practice Leader, Quality & Supply Chain at Intelex Technologies. Before Intelex, she was an Associate Professor of Data Science and Production Systems, Assistant Director (VP) End-to-End Operations at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and manager and consultant for several other organizations since the late 1990's bringing quality management to technologically-oriented operations. She is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) with a Ph.D. in Quality Systems from Indiana State University. Nicole serves as Editor of Software Quality Professional (SQP) journal and is a former Chair of the ASQ Software Division. She is an ASQ Certified Manager of Quality and Organizational Excellence (CMQ/OE) and Certified Six Sigma Black Belt (CSSBB). 

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June 20, 2019 @ 10:34 AM EDT Manufacturing, Energy - Oil and Gas, Chemical, Aviation and Aerospace Quality

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