Here’s your definitive guide to the Plan, Do, Check, Adjust (PDCA) cycle – one of the pillars of Lean, continuous improvement and operational excellence.
Plan Do Check Adjust (PDCA) is the engine room of continuous improvement. It is the most widely known and used improvement cycle. This simple, yet highly effective, methodology is at the heart of every improvement or learning opportunity in a Lean thinking organisation. However, it may also be the least well understood in practice.
In my experience many organisations follow a ‘PDCA lite’ version which is really just Plan and Do or simply just Do, Do, Do, Do. They take a shotgun approach to improvement; simply hoping for the best. All too often we waste time, effort and scarce resources on improvement efforts. Our activity is based on hunches and assumptions that are not well conceived, executed or tracked.
Consider PDCA as a scientific approach
The PDCA methodology is based on the scientific approach of prediction, developing a hypothesis, conducting experiments, observing and checking the outcome, applying critical thinking and attempting to learn from the outcome.
The scientific approach has resonated through the ages. This method has driven countless breakthroughs and innovation through time simply by designing and executing experiments. It’s the approach used by Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Thomas Edison to name a few. As human beings we naturally think and behave this way – particularly as children.
We experiment with the world around us to learn, to grow, and to develop our knowledge through continual trial and error. Consider how we learn to walk, talk and engage with the wide world around us. This continues for us throughout life as we learn and adapt to our situation and current circumstances. We evolve and grow toward our objectives both professional and personal.
These days the method is visualised as a circle with the four quadrants of the PDCA process. The circular motion is an indication of the sequence of the method. Plus it’s a reminder of the perpetual nature of the continuous process improvement. Fun fact – it wasn’t always a circle!
The first to show it as such was Walter Shewhart, also known as ‘the father of statistical quality control’. However, Shewart originally had only three steps, first in a line and later in a circle – Specification, Production, Inspection – known as the Shewhart cycle.
A quality engineer named W. Edwards Deming edited Shewhart’s book in 1930. Using these learnings, Deming adopted and evolved Shewart’s model. Eventually, Deming became famous in Japan for teaching the Japanese quality control tools and techniques. Deming taught that we should think about change and improvement like a scientific experiment as a way of testing, and developing your understanding of the process. In this way, you begin start critically thinking through the result or improvement. The result of Deming’s work significantly improved product quality in Japan and resulted in the evolution of Plan, Do, Check, Adjust (also known as the Deming Cycle) as we know it today.
PDCA can apply to the macro as much as it does the micro. This allows the tool to be used for Hoshin or policy deployment at a strategic level, to be used as value stream implementation, to support organisational change processes, to facilitate training or the smallest process changes and improvements.
Ultimately through practice, repetition, structure and discipline, PDCA becomes habitual. We end up with way of thinking woven into the DNA of an organisation, its environment, and its people.
Defining each step of PDCA
Plan is firstly about establishing and understanding our current state – where we are right now.
Before we set off planning the next step it is critical we know the terrain we find ourselves in to begin our journey. We must grasp the current condition of our process and establish the objective or target.
Plan should be about breaking the objective down into manageable chunks. We must gain clarity of the potential obstacles and prioritise them. With this we formulate our hypothesis, in turn defining the next step. If we take this step we are predicting a particular or desired outcome. Plan should provide clarity on what we are going to do, how it will be done, and when we are going to do it.
As part of a cyclical process Plan will also incorporate component parts of the Adjust phase of the previous cycle as we will have had key learnings and reflections to inform the new planning phase.
This is an example of how PDCA applies at both the macro and micro levels.
Do is simply about executing the improvement plan. Do is about taking action – obvious, yes, but so often we find inertia in the planning phase. Do is where we test the hypothesis and run the process according to our plan.
This is often done on a small scale or short cycle to ensure feedback and learning is rapid. As the philosopher Mike Tyson once said. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
In other words: you won’t know the value of your plan until you test it in the field.
Check is about observing, measuring, understanding, and receiving confirmation on how our plan has worked versus what we predicted.
Without a check stage or metrics how will we know if the plan has been effective or not (and to what degree)? What will be checked? How will it be measured? When should we check? Who will check? What are the definitions of success or failure based on our plan?
Checking should highlight not only the overall outcome but will capture the key process metrics by which the outcome was achieved.
The adjust phase is where we stop to reflect and learn from what has happened in Plan, Do, Check. You may have seen this stage termed Act, however Adjust is perhaps a more logical fit since this component is really about learning and reflective practice.
We reflect on:
- What has worked well?
- What has not?
- What we have learned from our experience?
- What have we learned from our checks, measures, feedback and observations?
However, merely reflecting on the findings is insufficient. It is imperative for the team to take decisive action based on these insights. This fosters continual improvement and moves us towards the desired outcomes.
1. Adjust and reassess: adjustments and reassessments are conducted when the outcomes of the implemented plan do not meet the expected results. For instance, if a company aimed to reduce product defects by 20% within six months but falls short of this target, they will review the initial plan and make necessary modifications. This sub-stage focuses on identifying areas for improvement and refining the approach for better outcomes.
2. Provide feedback: Feedback plays a pivotal role in the Adjust phase. This involves gathering input from various stakeholders, including employees, customers, and other relevant parties. Feedback channels, such as tier meeting huddles and customer comments provide valuable insights into the effectiveness of the implemented plan and highlight any areas that require further improvements. By actively seeking feedback, organizations can make informed decisions and enhance their processes accordingly.
3. Standardize processes: It is an essential that corrective measures are deployed, and all procedures are standardized. This ensures that the improvements identified and implemented previously are integrated systematically. Standardization guarantees consistency in the execution of activities, ensuring operational stability and long-term success. By standardizing processes, organizations can establish a framework for continuous improvement efforts, aligning their operations with best practices for sustained growth and efficiency.
It is rare that everything goes perfectly, according to our plan. The adjust phase provides time and space to ensure we capture, standardise and sustain our gains and learnings. It allows us to understand the gaps and opportunities for further innovation or improvement. This may be an opportunity for wider sharing and communication (Yokoten) and documentation and training of the new condition or process standard.
Reap the rewards from PDCA
PDCA sounds simple in essence and can be easily glossed over, leading to poor application. But if executed well, and internalised by your teams, it is an absolute powerhouse. The meta cycle embeds intentional and deliberate practice toward improvement.
The PDCA process is not a ‘locally optimised island’ It’s part of the greater C.I. Framework
Standardised problem solving techniques, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and Tiered Daily Management are just some of the adjacent Lean tools and processes that support the entire PDCA loop. To optimise our use of PDCA we must ensure alignment of all the people, processes and systems involved in the greater continuous improvement framework. No one element should be developed in isolation.
The illustration below demonstrates how we designed the interconnected TeamAssurance platform to avoid locally optimised, disconnected ‘Point Solutions’ (digital or analog) that do not help, and may even hinder your progress when it comes to continuous improvement.
If you’re a business in need (or a consultant with clients in need) and you’d like to implement or enhance a PDCA approach, contact us for a demonstration of the TeamAssurance platform today.