Improvement: To be Continual… Or Continuous?

Any student of W. Edwards Deming or quality management in general is no stranger to the term ‘Continuous Improvement’.

Over here at Intelex, we use the term an awful lot, as we believe that, though it is most frequently cited in conversations on quality management, it is more of a meta-process that can be applied to all aspects of business management: environment, health, safety, governance…anything!

But a bit of an internal conversation was struck up recently as we noticed some people prefer ‘continuous’, while others use ‘continual’. So we thought we would do a little research and find out which term was correct, or if they represented two ways of stating the same thing.

Here’s a comparison chart outlining what we found (with an albeit highly unscientific methodology):


Metric Continual Continuous
Definition “Recurring regularly or frequently”

“Forming an unbroken whole; without interruption”

Google Pickup About 1.2 million results

About 9.5 million results

Wikipedia Search Result Redirects to “Continuous Improvement Process”

“Continuous Improvement Process”


So, it’s clear “Continuous Improvement” is far more widely used, and more accurately describes the premise.

But as Jon Miller points out in this blog post on the topic, “continual improvement” – that is, improvement in stages and marked by interruption – is a better description of what businesses actually practice. Even the Plan-Do-Check-Act approach, endemic of most management systems wherein continuous improvement is a central premise, is itself an iterative process, signified by stages and interruptions.

On the other hand, “continuous improvement” is a better description of what businesses ought to aspire to achieve. Is it possible? I believe so. I believe that when technology is leveraged, when real-time data is communicated seamlessly to operators, when trending and forecasting tools enable truly predictive, proactive management, then continuous improvement – in the true sense of the term – is achieved, or at least lies within reach.


One thought on “Improvement: To be Continual… Or Continuous?

  1. To my mind, "Continual Improvement" indicates that tactical activities related to improvement occur on an ongoing basis. "Continuous Improvement", by contrast, defines a strategic ideology, a philosophy if you will, that governs or frames an organization's activities as inherently improvement-based.

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