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What is Plan-Do-Check-Act?

Plan-Do-Check-Act, or PDCA, is a four-step process for implementing change in the workplace. Based on the scientific method of “hypothesis-experiment-evaluation,” PDCA enables workers and teams to identify unnecessary steps in a process, avoid recurring mistakes and improve processes moving forward.

The specific steps of a PDCA cycle typically look something like this:

  1. Plan: Recognize an opportunity for change, establish objectives and identify a step that might deliver the desired results.
  2. Do: Test the change by attempting to achieve the objectives using the new approach.
  3. Check: Review and analyze the results of the test and identify what you’ve learned.
  4. Act: Take action based on what you learned in the previous step.
    a. If the plan was successful, adopt the new method or incorporate what you learned from the Check step into further changes, if needed.
    b. If the planned change did not work, perform another test using a different approach.
    c. Whatever the results from your first cycle, use the outcomes to influence process changes as part of organization-wide continuous improvement.

PDCA is a key component of a kata practice, since innovative experimentation goes hand-in-hand with the incremental improvement of kata. PDCA should become an iterative pillar of any kaizen program, repeated over and over again to achieve continuous improvement.

PDCA is often used to help workers develop the skill of critical thinking, as it encourages participants to develop a hypothesis and consider all angles of a problem in search of a solution. No matter the outcome of the initial PDCA cycle, each subsequent cycle extends participants’ knowledge of the process further. Since one goal of PDCA is to find the “one best way” to carry out a task, it can facilitate major breakthroughs in process improvement and worker performance.

History of the PDCA Model

American statistician and physicist Walter Shewhart used the scientific method to develop a control system for the commercial manufacturing process, labeling the steps as Plan-Do-Check-Act. The PDCA model is more often associated with W. Edwards Deming, the “father of continuous improvement,” who eventually modified Shewhart’s original process steps by replacing Check with Study (PDSA). Other name variations include Plan-Do-Check-Adjust, the Deming circle/wheel/cycle, the Shewhart cycle or O(bserve)PDCA.

Deming emphasized the Study step in his writings and lectures, emphasizing to attendees that studying the results of any changes to process will lead to new knowledge. He maintained that the search for new information is always guided by a theory or hypothesis, which the Study phase helps to further develop.

PDCA was one of the tools Deming presented to Japanese manufacturers during post-World War II rebuilding efforts; the model was eventually incorporated into the Toyota Production System (TPS). At Toyota, PDCA is used as a system to develop critical thinking, or “building people before building cars.”

PDCA has become a key part of Lean management, as it helps workers identify waste in processes by analyzing the results of change and eliminating unnecessary steps.

When to Use the PDCA Cycle

Since the PDCA cycle requires time to prepare, test and retest, it is not always appropriate for solving urgent problems. PDCA is ideal for:

  • Developing a new or improved design of a process, product or service
  • Implementing any change to a work process or structure
  • Identifying and streamlining a repetitive work process
  • Starting a new improvement initiative
  • Data collection and analysis to verify problems or root causes
  • Working toward continuous improvement

PDCA is typically associated with large-scale projects that involve many people and moving parts. As a result, leadership teams may expect to see significant breakthroughs to justify the time and effort.

Before attempting any major process overhauls (or before the Do step), it is crucial to get buy-in from the leadership team and any external stakeholders, since unsuccessful changes can be costly. These parties should understand the nature of PDCA as a repeatable, iterative process that expands knowledge with each successive cycle, with each iteration intended to bring participants closer to the objective. To support the need for PDCA, continuous improvement directors can make the case that a workforce skilled in critical thinking and problem-solving can build a more competitive, innovative organization.

Who Should Use the PDCA Cycle?

Besides strengthening critical thinking in your workforce, adopting PDCA can:

  • Establish a mindset of continuous improvement, both of people and processes
  • Give your teams the opportunity to test possible changes in a controlled environment
  • Eradicate and prevent recurring mistakes, from minimal to large and costly

Entire organizations, teams and individuals can practice PDCA to achieve personal and company-wide objectives.

PDCA for Organizations

PDCA is ideal for implementing large-scale changes, and as such can take a significant investment of time. The Plan stage can potentially be the most time-consuming, and may be (and feel) more achievable if broken up into smaller increments that are easier for teams or individuals to own. Splitting the larger plan into smaller pieces can also minimize the risk for failure later in the cycle.

To help your teams plan effectively, have them address the following questions:

  • What is the core problem we need to solve?
  • What are the goals in solving this problem?
  • What resources do we need?
  • What resources do we already have?
  • Considering our available resources, what is the best solution for fixing the problem?
  • By what measures will the plan be considered successful?

    The repetitive nature of PDCA allows your team to test multiple options to reduce process waste and see which alternative works best. Standardize as many successful steps as possible for each successive cycle.

PDCA for Individuals

In addition to an assessment of their performance, employee reviews often include objectives that workers need to achieve before their next check-in. Workers can apply PDCA to personal goals in the workplace using the following model:

  1. Plan: Identify what, if anything, you’d like to improve or change about your approach to work. Identify anything that is holding you back in your job and how you want to progress.
  2. Do: Safely test different ways of getting your desired results in a way that does not disrupt others’ work. For example, if you have trouble following up on work emails, set a personal timer that will remind you throughout the day to respond.
  3. Check: Review your progress regularly and adjust your behavior accordingly. Use this step to consider the results of your actions, either on your team or on larger processes.
  4. Act: Implement what’s working; repeat the cycle to refine what isn’t.

Learn More About Plan-Do-Check-Act

If you’d like to learn more about what PDCA, kata or kaizen might look like in your organization, Training Within Industry (TWI) utilizes all of these tools in hands-on improvement coaching designed to make an important and lasting difference for your organization. Explore TWI Institute’s training options for employees and leaders, or start a conversation with our team today.

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