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The Continual Improvement vs. Continuous Improvement Dilemma...

This issue has received wide discussion on many fronts. Both terms are commonly used. At MCTS, we see a substantial difference between continual and continuous.

Please bear in mind however that in the "eyes" of ISO 9000 there is no difference between continual and continuous. The concept of "continual" improvement is the term that Deming always used in reference to the general processes of improvement.

Deming's understanding of improvement was much broader then many people seem to understand. He included people, as well as systems in his views and philosophy. Deming's application of SPC (Statistical Process Control) was focused primarily on continuous improvement of existing (and almost exclusively manufacturing) processes. His philosophical discussions, however, included considerations much further "upstream" as applied to other less repetitive management arenas.

The concept of "continual improvement" is understood here to be the general strategy that typically consists of both “continuous process improvements,” like SPC, and “discontinuous function or systemic improvements” like organizational “reengineering” or throwing out dysfunctional methods of management and starting over instead of trying to continually improve ineffective business strategies. Also included are Deming’s 14 Points of Management.

Another example illustrated in coaching work with executives’ shows that sometimes the best way to move forward is to move sideways, so to speak. If the process in place is dysfunctional, a functional exec must move toward a new set of assumptions which may result in short term discontinuous failure which then leads to longer term continual improvement. This is a useful distinction because it makes no sense to continuously improve on what may be a dysfunctional process.

Redesigning an entire organization is a “discontinuous” activity that, once redesigned, individual or related processes can then be continuously improved. All too often "reengineering" in the 80’s resulted in many "downsizing" strategies that caused a great deal of human damage in companies worldwide. The change-agent’s background as an engineer seldom provided insightful perspectives on people issues in those days. Many organizations still do not understand Deming’s main points though his principles are clear.

The distinction between continuous improvement and continual improvement became clear for many of us in Reengineering the Corporation by Michael Hammer and James Champy. They spent a portion of their book distinguishing reengineering from the continuous improvement emphasis that they (mistakenly) attributed to Deming (primarily). Their argument was that continuous improvement was limited to linear, incremental improvement, while their approach lead to radical change and improvement. However, Deming's understanding of improvement was much broader and included the type of thinking that they were proposing.

Again, Deming himself never used the term "continuous improvement". Rather, he used the term "continual improvement". This was an intentional distinction that Deming made. He often objected when people associated him with continuous improvement. Continual improvement is broader in scope than continuous improvement. Continuous improvement is a subset of continual improvement. Continual improvement also includes room for *discontinuous* improvements (improvements that are not like in kind to what came before - another term for this might be innovative or radical improvements such as are sought after in most reengineering efforts, or in the lean manufacturing movement). Continuous improvements are linear, incremental improvements to an existing process (Kaizen). Continual improvement includes this, as well as discontinuous/innovative improvement. In other words, continual improvement speaks to the PROCESS of improvement (always and forever (continually) ongoing, in all of its forms and in all areas) rather than the NATURE of the improvements (continuous vs discontinuous).

Thinking of continual improvement vs. continuous improvement serves to highlight the importance of developing learning disciplines on a much deeper level than most organizations seem interested in considering. If continual improvement is to be attained, the organization will be, by definition a learning organization.


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