Abstract This paper presents a novel discrete differential evolution (DDE) algorithm for solving the no-wait flow shop scheduling problems with makespan and maximum tardiness criteria. First, the individuals in the DDE algorithm are represented as discrete job permutations, and new mutation and crossover operators are developed based on this representation. Second, an elaborate one-to-one selection operator is designed by taking into account the domination status of a trial individual with its counterpart target individual as well as an archive set of the non-dominated solutions found so far. Third, a simple but effective local search algorithm is developed to incorporate into the DDE algorithm to stress the balance between global exploration and local exploitation. In addition, to improve the efficiency of the scheduling algorithm, several speed-up methods are devised to evaluate a job permutation and its whole insert neighborhood as well as to decide the domination status of a solution with the archive set. Computational simulation results based on the well-known benchmarks and statistical performance comparisons are provided. It is shown that the proposed DDE algorithm is superior to a recently published hybrid differential evolution (HDE) algorithm [Qian B, Wang L, Huang DX, Wang WL, Wang X. An effective hybrid DE-based algorithm for multi-objective flow shop scheduling with limited buffers. Computers & Operations Research 2009;36(1):209–33] and the well-known multi-objective genetic local search algorithm (IMMOGLS2) [Ishibuchi H, Yoshida I, Murata T. Balance between genetic search and local search in memetic algorithms for multiobjective permutation flowshop scheduling. IEEE Transactions on Evolutionary Computation 2003;7(2):204–23] in terms of searching quality, diversity level, robustness and efficiency. Moreover, the effectiveness of incorporating the local search into the DDE algorithm is also investigated.