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Continual Improvement or Continuous Improvement?

Is your organisation involved in Continual Improvement or Continuous Improvement?   In the context of IT Service Management, many professionals interchange these quality management terms. However, there is a significant difference between the two terms when it comes to improving our management practices, and providing excellent customer service.

Continual Improvement is more about planning and implementing strategic programmes to change the company's products, services, people and processes for the better.  Whilst Continuous Improvement is related to the constant, daily work practices and staff activities that are relentlously devoted to removing wasted effort and ellimitating defective products, services and processes.

Continual Improvement is enabled through the cycles of P-D-C-A  (Deming's 4 step business management method, Plan-Do-Check-Act), and D-M-A-I-C (Six Sigma data-driven process improvement cycle, Define-Measure-Analyse-Improve-Control).

Many of us, in all spheres of life (not just in Business and IT Process Improvement), tend to use “Continual Improvement” interchangeably with “Continuous Improvement”. This is similar to distinguishing Customers from Clients and Consumers.  (I tackled that topic in an article at QualityHelp,  Customer, Client or Consumer?).  Generally this is fine, because we all have a reasonable concept as to their “common” meaning. 

In the language of quality, business process improvement and IT Service Management, there are distinct differences in both their meaning and application.  We should understand the differences and start to apply the expressions where appropriate.

One clue to the difference might be taken from the literal meaning:

  • Continual means “Recurring frequently”   ie. In stages or phases with implied breaks.
  • Continuous means “Unceasing”   ie.  In an unbroken series
Hence Continual Improvement should relate to ongoing, phased tasks and outcomes associated with Business Process Improvement, Service Improvement Plans and IT Process Improvement.
According to Wikipedia, Continual Improvement Process (abbreviated as CIP or CI), is an ongoing effort to improve products, services, or processes. These efforts can seek "incremental" improvement over time or "breakthrough" improvement all at once.  Delivery (customer valued) processes are constantly evaluated and improved in the light of their efficiency, effectiveness and flexibility.

In the ITIL v3 Service Management practices, Continual Improvement activities are defined in the Continual Service Improvement (CSI) stage.

ITIL v3 Continual Service Improvement stage (CSI)

 Service Review  Objective: To review business services and infrastructure services on a regular basis. The aim of this process is to improve service quality where necessary, and to identify more economical ways of providing a service where possible.
 Process Evaluation  Process Objective: To evaluate processes on a regular basis. This includes identifying areas where the targeted process metrics are not reached, and holding regular bench markings, audits, maturity assessments and reviews.
 Definition of CSI Initiatives  Process Objective: To define specific initiatives aimed at improving services and processes, based on the results of service reviews and process evaluations. The resulting initiatives are either internal initiatives pursued by the service provider on his own behalf, or initiatives which require the customer’s cooperation.
 Monitoring of CSI Initiatives  Process Objective: To verify if improvement initiatives are proceeding according to plan, and to introduce corrective measures where necessary. 


Business Process Improvement   –   the macro view of Continual Improvement

Dr H. James Harrington and associates from Ernst & Young published an excellent and comprehensive workbook, as a hands-on implementation guide to his best-selling Business Process Improvement. The Business Process Improvement  Workbook provided detailed management guidance and tools, to deliver a Continual Improvement Programme to ailing corporations. The tools allowed the corporations to:

§   Slash their bureaucracies
§   Eliminate workflow bottlenecks
§   Stop effort duplication
§   Root out obsolescence and waste

The six phases worked through in the Business Process Improvement Plan are:

Phase I   - Organisation: Organising for Process Improvement
Phase II  - Documentation: Selecting a documentation approach
Phase III – Analysis: Defining Improvement opportunities
Phase IV – Design: Designing the new administrative business approach
Phase V  - Implementation: Installing the future state solution
Phase VI – Management: Managing the administrative business process organisation for Continuous Improvement

A few words of caution - From my extensive experience in the IT Service Management industry, without Continuous Improvement Process in the final phase of the Business Process Improvement plan, the CI Plan will eventually fail.

So where does Continuous Improvement fit into all this?

If we look at the Wikipefia definition,  Continuous Improvement Process (otherwise known as CIP or CI) is a management process whereby delivery processes (customer valued) are being constantly checked, evaluated and improved accordingly, with regards to efficiency, their level of effectiveness and flexibility.

Kaizen  (roughly translates from Japanese as "Continuous Improvement" or "improving change") provides the constant and tactical methods and practices for Continuous Improvement.

The key features of Kaizen (taken from Wikipedia) include:

  • Improvements are based on many, small changes rather than the radical changes that might arise from Research and Development
  • As the ideas come from the workers themselves, they are less likely to be radically different, and therefore easier to implement
  • Small improvements are less likely to require major capital investment than major process changes
  • The ideas come from the talents of the existing workforce, as opposed to using research, consultants or equipment – any of which could be very expensive
  • All employees should continually be seeking ways to improve their own performance
  • It helps encourage workers to take ownership for their work, and can help reinforce team working, thereby improving worker motivation.

Finally, in an attempt to provide a "big picture" perspective of the Continuous Improvement Process relative to the Continual Improvement Process (or Programme), I have constructed a matrix to summarise the many of the elements, methods and practices of both approaches.  Expect to find some components and tools of the listed quality systems and methodologies to appear in both the macro and micro implementations of CIP.  This model is one example, and will definitely be transform across different organisations.  In fact it will change over time within the same company.  Remember that one key to a successful Quality Management System is that it is not over rigid and inflexible. The Continual Improvement Processmust be frequently reviewed frequently by upper management for effectiveness.


[References used in this article:  "Business Process Improvement - Workbook", by Harrington, Esseling and van Nimwegen, 1997 (McGraw-Hill)
"The Toyota Way", by Jeffrey K. Liker 2003 (McGraw-Hill)

ITIL V3 CSI - Continual Service Improvement,  (from the IT Process Wiki: The ITIL Viki) ]


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