Continual vs. Continuous Improvement

W. Edwards Deming in Tokyo

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Coming from a W. Edwards Deming background, I have been sensitized to the word “continual” when it comes to improvement.  It served as a code word for those that where true followers of Dr. Deming vs. “the pretenders.”  I always knew who really understood the philosophy and those that just sounded good.

Even today, I still find myself talking to groups about the difference between continual and continuous improvement.  I like to describe “continuous improvement” as always making improvements and moving forward – I have never seen this happen over the long haul.  “Continual” improvement” implies that sometimes you have to stop or even take a step or steps backward to achieve improvement – improvement is discontinuous in nature.

Management doesn’t understand continual improvement as their impatience only allows them to embrace continuous improvement.  Always forward, the next quarter must be better than the last.  Growth, no matter what the reality or the foolishness of the pursuit.

Studying systems requires a stoppage to understand the underlying thinking that dictates the current performance.   With solid understanding, experimentation with method may lead to improvement or knowledge of what doesn’t work.  For a scientist, this is a victory as they come one-step closer to discovery.

The road to continual improvement is a rocky one with many ups and downs.  Understanding this allows one the opportunity to begin the journey.

Tripp Babbitt is a speaker, blogger and consultant to service industry (private and public).  His organization helps executives find a better way to make the work work.  Read his articles at Quality Digest and his column for  Learn more about the 95 Method for service organizations.  Reach him on Twitter at LinkedIn at

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