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In a company flyer I just came across this formulation in a paragraph on quality management:

Wir arbeiten kontinuierlich an unseren Qualitätsdefiziten

It is obvious that they meant something like "We continuously work to overcome quality deficits".

Is the expression "arbeiten an" appropriate in this context?

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This is great! You're showing a very good example where the sentence say both: "we're working on getting better" and "we're working increasing the quaility of our deficits" ... thanks for this! – blindfold Jan 16 '12 at 15:48
up vote 6 down vote accepted

"Arbeiten an" is used both for things you want to achieve:

Er arbeitet an einem Projekt.

... and things you want to overcome:

Er arbeitet an seinen Defiziten.

A quick glance at the Google results for "arbeiten an" indicates that the former usage is by far the most common, but both are correct.

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You can even say "Sie arbeitet ständig an sich." which means "she continously works to improve herself". – 0x6d64 Jan 11 '12 at 9:55

Arbeiten an is best translated as working on. So literally it is "We continuously work on our quality deficits".

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From the context it's pretty obvious what the writer means. Stylistically (and given this is taken from a company image brochure) though it would be better to write a clear and unambiguous sentence:

Wir arbeiten kontinuierlich daran, unsere Qualitätsdefizite zu beseitigen.

Note: That company is obviously still working on their quality deficits. ;-)

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+1 for the ambiguity. Maybe they're also working hard to increase their quality deficits... :) – OregonGhost Jan 12 '12 at 13:31
"Wir arbeiten kontiernuierlich daran, unsere Qualitätsdefizite zu minimieren." - Would be more precise. – blindfold Jan 16 '12 at 15:48
@blindfold I think you don't want to read that in a brochure. – splattne Jan 16 '12 at 17:35
@splattne I fully agrree on this! I don't think I want to read about quality deficits in any broschure, do you? - "minimieren" is a little less offensive than "beseitigen" – blindfold Jan 17 '12 at 7:36

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