Definition of Terms and Clarity (QP May 2019 - Continous/continual usage in ISO-9001)
While we all need a clear understanding of what we intend to obtain the best results, arguing about particular term usage instead of simply defining what is meant precisely is a huge waste of effort and resources!  First of all, language may be followed and codified by observation, but in reality language usage defines the 'codes', the codes do not define the language.  Secondly, as recognized international standards, the arcane definition of particular ENGLISH word/grammar usage is going to be completely lost on most of the intended audience/users (including auditors) without specific explanation.
SO, just as in legal documents and contracts we have found it necessary (unfortunately) to spell out what is intended as clearly and agreeably as possible, it will serve the purpose of Quality Standards to simply provide a clear lexicon/dictionary of all important terms.  How does the QUALITY PROFESSION define those terms? How does it expect to see them implemented?  Whether it agrees with any (or no) common uses, within the context of the Quality Standards it will be defined specifically.  The semantics - and changing linquistic landscape - of terms like "continual" vs. "continuous" will NEVER be settled.  PICK ONE TERM, define it as you wish in the relevant document, and that's it.
As background, I am a Senior ASQ Member, CQA, CQE and have spent my career in international assignments and consulting.  Although English is most often the "language of business" it is not the native language of most Quality System users.  As a comparison, given the basis of "ISO", maybe you should consider converting ALL legitimate documents, standards and definitions into FRENCH alone.  I thought not...  Don't be bigotted with English either.
Steven Cooke
9 Replies
Duke Okes 1670
101 Posts
No disrespect to the author of the author, I believe if that was a top concern in the quality community we would have pretty well done our jobs and can move on to other fields.  I'm a lot more concerned with the lack of fundamentals (Boeing 787 Max, GM ignition switch, Wells Fargo customer accounts, Peanut Corp of America shipping knowingly shipping contaminated product, ...).  And these are only the highly visible ones, which means there are likely thousands+++ more that aren't discovered but cost people their lives/health/pocket book, etc.
Full agreement. This is the sort of pedantic navel gazing that gives our profession a bad reputation. This is as bad as the arguments about how to spell preventive.
Amanda Foster 1083
652 Posts
I haven't read the article yet, but I agree with this line of discussion. People are less likely to take the quality profession seriously if obscure vocabulary definitions are hang-ups for us. I agree with Steven Cooke‍, Let's settle on agreed definitions and spend our energy getting others to understand the concepts. After all, our goal is improving quality - not some sort of "special knowledge club" - right?
Harry Rowe 210
91 Posts
Back in the early 1990's I listened to an audio program called "Communicating for Results" by Dr. Stephen D. Boyd. One of the things he said that affected me powerfully was "The meaning is in the person, not in the word." Each of us carries a working definition for each of the words we use, but we are at peril when we assume that everyone else's definition is the same as ours. And since, of necessity, definitions are in terms of other words, it's hard to so precisely define words that others cannot misunderstand. Examples and dialog are ways to reduce the possibility of misunderstanding, but it can't really be eliminated.
An excellent article. W. Edwards Deming made the same distinction between continual and continuous, e.g., "The main difference between the terms is time—in the definitions of “continual,” there are breaks in time. In the definitions of “continuous,” however, there aren’t."  At an individual level, improvement is continual.  At a group or system level, the improvement must be continuous because quality either gets better or it gets worse.

Deming also concluded that if he was to reduce his message to management to just a few words, it all has to do with reducing variation.  See ASQs glossary of terms for Variation (What is Variation: Law of Variation). 

A more common understanding of variation would provide a needed context for understanding the important distinction between continual and continuous. 

In practical terms I prefer to keep the word continual improvmeent due to the fact that metrics have ups and downs: however, the trend should be positive. Continual involves continuous but continuous do not allow continual improvement. With respect to the author, I disagree, and I would prefer the standrad as is.

At the very outset let me say I’m in favour of keeping the term continual.
This was a worthwhile question and shouldn’t be dismissed as semantics. We communicate using words and if the topic is important, like quality. It is a good idea to have a very clear shared meaning of each word.
Here are my reasons for keeping continual.
All purposeful activity involves four stages: Defining, Realising, Delivering and Evaluating [DRDE]. Initially all of these are fluid and in a state of continuous improvement but nothing happens unless we freeze them for a time and let the activity achieve its outcome.
Take the defining stage. If we stay here in a fluid continuous improvement situation we never reach agreement on what the purpose of the activity is as it is constantly evolving. Therefore for practical reasons we freeze the definition or specification and have it realised and delivered and then we evaluate the whole cycle. This is when continual improvement happens. The quicker we make the DRDE cycle the higher the frequency of continual improvement but it can never be continuous even if the cycle time is in nanoseconds.
Another lesser reason for keeping continual is that it make people wonder what is the difference between continuous and continual and why does the ISO9000 series use the latter.
It took a while for me to compose my thoughts about this topic. Please see the attached paper for a rejoinder to the original article.
I view improvement not as a gradual incline, but rather as a set of staircase steps. We do some work following the PDCA cycle (the run of the steps), and look for some improvement (the rise of the step). Following the dictionary definitions of continual and continuous, if I had to pick a side, I would side with leaving it at “continual”, as it means repeated but with breaks in between, as there are breaks in time as the PDCA steps are followed and repeated.