Plan Do Check Act – PDCA Cycle for Continuous Improvement

The PDCA Cycle is an easy-to-understand, repeatable approach for working toward continuous improvement. 

Teams and organizations are constantly striving to find better ways of working.

Many organizations have to do more with less – whether it be fewer people or less money.

And organizations always want to find ways to save money, increase efficiency, and make the work environment better. 

But often the request by management to do so can seem overwhelming. So

But if you knew there were a structured approach to try possible improvements, get feedback quickly, and do it in a way that allowed you to learn in a controlled environment and build on your successes, you’d likely be interested, right?

Well, there is! And it’s something you can easily learn and teach to your peers. 

And then go a big step further and give it a try. 

And if you find a way to save the company money or time, you may just get a nice bonus out of it! Sweet!

Plan Do Check Act – PDCA Cycle

The Plan Do Check Act – PDCA Cycle is a four-step method used in the process of continuous improvement.

The PDCA Cycle is also known as the Deming Cycle. In the 1920’s, Walter Shewhart created the Plan – Do – See concept, which was known as the Shewhart Cycle. Edwards Deming modified it from there. Another variation you may encounter is PDSA Cycle: Plan-Do-Study-Act. 

But they all lead to the same thing…

They’re all approaches focused on continuous improvement. And each of the four components plays a specific role in this continuous improvement process. 

The Plan Do Check Act – PDCA Cycle is a four-step method used in the process of continuous improvement. Each of the four components plays a specific role in this continuous improvement process.

Plan

plan do check act - PDCA Cycle

When determining how to make improvements, it’s important to understand the problem. You can’t carry out improvement activities if you don’t first understand the problem. You need to understand the root-cause, impacts, and other relevant information about the problem.

That’s what you do during this planning phase.

Once you have a better understanding of the problem, you then develop a plan for making improvements. 

To get a more prescriptive approach for these activities, steps 1 through 5 in this 7 Problem-Solving approach can help. These steps walk you through how to ensure you’re getting a full understanding of the situation you’re dealing with, defining the problem correctly, and selecting the best solution for the situation. You’ll develop a plan for carrying out the solution.

Part of planning must be understanding your beginning baseline and knowing what metrics you’ll use to measure against. Only in this way will you know if you’ve made adequate improvements.

Before moving on to executing your plan, clearly identify what success looks like and how you’ll know if your approach was successful. You need to be able to identify quantitative or qualitative results to know if you’ve been successful. 

Do

plan-do-check-act - PDCA Cycle

Up to now, you and your team have gotten a good understanding of the problem, and you’ve developed a plan to address it. 

You know what your baseline is and what success means. 

Now you execute your plan. You can do it a couple of ways. 

  • You can carry out your plan with a small pilot group, testing with a small group before rolling out to everyone.
  • Or you can execute your plan with a larger group but make sure the test is controlled.

Either way, carry out the activities you identified to make improvements. 

Check

After a pre-determined amount of time, measure the results of the changes. Validate if the changes meet your expectations.

Check against the baseline measurements. Also, use the metrics you identified at the beginning. 

You want to see if your plan worked and if you got positive results. 

You’ll also identify where you can make improvements to the plan. You may need to tweak some things or modify based on what you’ve learned. 

Check results against your baseline and see if your plan worked as expected. You may need to make adjustments. It’s a learning cycle.

Act

Plan Do Check Act - PDCA cycle

Now that you know if you’re actions have made an improvement or not, carry out the appropriate next steps. 

If you’ve carried out your improvement steps in a small pilot group with positive results, you may be ready to roll the changes out to a larger group. 

If you made changes to the larger environment and all looks good, then you’d standardize the changes to be the new normal for the environment.

Alternatively, if the changes made didn’t provide the expected results, adjust the plan.

And even if you’ve gotten improvements, you may find down the road that further improvements are needed. In this case you can repeat the cycle. 

That‘s the intent of continuous improvement. 

Repeat

The PDCA Cycle is not a one-and-done activity. Teams carry out the cycle repeatedly to continue improving processes and building on earlier improvements. 

Your team and environment has improved, but there’s likely room to keep getting better. 

New knowledge, technologies, or approaches may surface that can help the team perform better.

Or you may gain new understandings from your new baseline that provide insight on how to improve in different ways.

Or you may be so inspired that you want to try the PDCA cycle on yet another process in your environment. 

You’re not limited on how many times you can use the Plan Do Check Act – PDCA cycle to continue to improve. 

Benefits of the PDCA Cycle

There are multiple benefits to the PDCA Cycle:

Continuous Feedback Loop

It gives you a great feedback loop to learn quickly if your plan works, or if you need to try a different approach. 

Limited disruption to business processes.

You can try potential solutions first on a small scale with a pilot group. This allows you to gain the benefit of learning without disrupting the whole organization.

Gets others involved.

It gets many members of your team engaged and participating in the problem-solving. If they’re helping to work toward improvements, it can inspire and help them view the workplace with new perspectives. They may begin to contribute even more input toward problem-solving and continuous improvement. 

Create a culture of continuous improvement.

You can create a culture of continuous improvement and continually build on successes. 

Challenges to Be Aware Of

When using the Plan Do Check Act-PDCA Cycle, there are considerations to be aware of:

  • It takes time.The PDCA Cycle isn’t an approach that can be used on problems that need to be solved quickly. 
  • It takes discipline. To carry out the cycle of activities, you need to understand your baseline, what success means, and how you’ll measure success. 
  • You need a controlled environment. In order to know if it was your activities that caused the success, you need to be able to control the environment when carrying out your pilot. Otherwise it might simply be correlation and not causation. If this is the case, then rolling out the changes to the entire organization may not have the positive results you expect.

Summary

The PDCA Cycle may not be a quick fix, but the structure is easy-to-understand and communicate. It can be used in many different situations and you can create a culture of continuous improvement. 

And once you’ve used it to make successful changes in one area, you’ll likely be looking for somewhere else to apply it for even more improvements!

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