Continuous vs continual improvement

I think I definitely need to ‘continually improve’ my sweetcorn harvest for next year – this was the entire result from my sweetcorn patch, so not only didn’t they pollinate properly – they didn’t grow properly either as both of these cobs fitted in the palm of my hand!
Helen profile image
September 27, 2017

All three of the management standards focus on improvement – rightly so, as after all, the whole point of implementing a management system and following the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle is to improve the outcomes and performance of your business.

Let’s start with some basics, according to the dictionary, ‘continual’ means “recurring regularly or frequently” and ‘continuous’ means “uninterrupted in time, without cessation”. There has always been a requirement for improvement embedded in the ISO standards and this has continued with Clause 10.3 Continual Improvement in the 2015 versions of ISO 9001 and 14001. Interestingly the 9001 clause now states that the organisation “shall continually improve the suitability, adequacy and effectiveness of the management system” which is much more relevant to management of a business than the previous wording which was very specific to quality: “the organisation shall continually improve the effectiveness of the quality management system through the use of the quality policy, quality objectives, audit results, analysis of data, corrective and preventative actions and management review”.

I think the most useful explanation of ‘continual improvement’ is from Section A.3 of the Annex of ISO 14001:2015:

“Continual indicates duration that occurs over a period of time, but with intervals of interruption unlike continuous which indicates duration without interruption. Continual is therefore the appropriate word to use when referring to improvement”.

In a business context ‘continual improvement’ is much more realistic than ‘continuous improvement’, after all focus, resources (and enthusiasm!) ebb and flow throughout the business year.

Ideas for continual improvement can come from a variety of sources across your business such as your employees, your customers and their changing requirements as well as your response to changes in the market you are operating in. Improvements can be on a small scale, for example simplifying a process or on a large scale, such as changing your business strategy and needing to change your management system to match. Once the idea has been identified, there are 4 basic steps to take:

  1. Plan – what is it you are hoping to achieve? What actions are you going to take? Have you communicated your plan and taken any feedback on board?
  2. Do – implement your actions, communicate what has changed and what you now expect people to do
  3. Check – did your actions have the desired effect? If they did, that’s great – just remember to monitor the changes you’ve made
  4. Act – if not, what do you need to do now?

Then identify the next area you’d like improve and so the cycle starts again.

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