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PDCA cycle – The Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle of constant improvement

PDCA cycle – The Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle of constant improvement
Categories: Lean & Agile
Blaz Kos

All changes made in Kaizen (evolution) and Kaikaku (revolution), the Japanese method of constant improvement, is done by following the PDCA cycle.

Improvements can be made in two ways - as constant, small, incremental improvements over a longer period of time (Kaizen), or big, focused, quantum leap improvements (Kaikaku) that completely redefine a business strategy in certain areas at a certain point in time.

Kaizen Blitz is the term used for an intensive and focused period of implementing improvements with the goal of achieving lightning-fast progress and growth. 

But no matter if you decide for the Kaizen or Kaikaku approach when implementing improvements, it’s recommended to follow the PDCA cycle.

The concept and main added value of the PDCA cycle

Theoretically, the PDCA acronym (Plan, Do, Check, Act) is really easy to understand, and thus also very easy to implement. But people unfortunately still rarely employ this basic process of change and improvement.

They’d rather do the same thing over and over again in the hopes of obtaining different results. They only focus on DO and forget the phase before as well as the two after. Don’t fall into this trap.

The main problem that appears when you decide to change and improve is that you don’t know which change will bring the desired results and which one won’t; You can only assume. Following the PDCA cycle helps you manage this uncertainty.

First, you plan a change based on your assumptions or hypotheses. Then you do the planned change in a very controlled environment. The next step is to check the results and do the analysis of where the change is leading you.

The last step is to act accordingly or to decide if you’ll keep the change in your life or pivot to something else. When you make this final decision, you have already entered a new cycle of planning and implementing the next change in the queue.

Consequently, the cycle never ends, and you can easily follow the process of continuous improvement. You enter the upward spiral of change.

That’s where the name PDCA cycle comes from; and that’s the process to follow when implementing any change. These are the steps:

  • Plan refers to what and why;
  • Do refers to performing an experiment and testing;
  • Check refers to analysis, reflection and introspection;
  • Act refers to implementation and corrective action;

Now let’s look every stage of the PDCA cycle a little bit closer.

Plan – take time and think

The first logical step in the PDCA cycle is planning. You have to sit down and think about the final outcome you want to achieve, or the problem you want to solve.

By planning, you can clarify what kind of improvements you want to implement, decide which opportunities to follow, and write down the assumptions (hypotheses or educated guesses) which you want to test.

You also have to analyze and diligently determine what kind of a behavioral change will most likely lead you to the desired result.

You need to set measurable and attainable goals (KPIs), and you need a strong Why that emotionally empowers you and reminds you of the reason you want to achieve something.

These questions can help you during the planning phase:

  • What is the core problem or issue we’re trying to solve?
  • Which approaches have we used before?
  • What resources do we need and have available for improvement?
  • What is the optimal solution we should experiment with?
  • What are the main KPIs or key results? How will we measure improvement?

The basic idea of the planning phase is to design a set of controllable experiments where you implement a change on a manageable scale, so you can analyze the possible effects on a greater level.

The fact is that only by doing and putting your assumptions to the test and then reflecting on the results are you able to see if your assumptions in the plan are right or wrong.

By doing and reflecting you can decide to validate or reject (confirm or negate) your hypotheses. That leads us to the “do” and “check” phases of the PDCA cycle.

Do – implement the plan in order to observe the change

In the “do” phase, you implement the plan. In a very controlled way, you change your behavior, setup, system or whatever will potentially lead to a different, and preferably desired, result. Essentially, the plan meets reality.

When you change your behavior, you interact differently with your environment, and that reshapes the relationships and the direction in which the environment is evolving.

Thus, any change causes friction and stress to the established system, and consequently that leads to a polarization of external factors.

Polarization means that every external factor has to become a blocker or a backer of your change. When you act differently, you have supporters of change and forces that want to put things back as they were. And you never know how polarization will happen.

That means your plan mustn’t consider only how the change will affect only your individual environment, but also how it will affect the organization as a whole.

But only when you do things in real life and you get the first-hand experience (Genchi Genbutsu),  can you finally see things as they are in reality and compare them to your plan and assumptions.

The properly executed “do” phase is very easy to spot. If you correctly implement any change, you almost always:

  • Start doing something new;
  • Stop doing something old;
  • Or both;

Check – observe, study, and reflect

The next step is to analyze the results. The “check” step is not about auditing, but more about reflecting. That’s why some people prefer to call it the PDSA cycle, where “check” is swapped with “study”.

With reflection (or introspection, as it’s often called) you analyze how the change affected you and your environment after changing your behavior.

In the “check” phase, you analyze which things went well, what didn’t go as planned and expected, and what could have been done differently to get better results. You also brainstorm ideas for the potential next improvements and changes.

In the check phase you need a clear answer to the following questions:

  • What went well during the experiment?
  • What didn’t go that well?
  • How could I do things differently?
  • How can I implement a new change?

In scientific terms, you do the evaluation – you compare the results with the plan. You validate or reject your hypotheses. You convert data into information, so you can draw final conclusions and insights and act accordingly.

In the “check” phase, you learn how to act based on testing and experimenting. You do validated learning. The 5 Whys analysis can be a great help when you are performing the “check” phase.

Act – implement the corrective action and standardize

The final step in the PDCA cycle is acting based on the conclusions you obtained from the experiment. It’s about implementing corrective actions based on your plan, the results of the experiment, and reflection insights. There is a decision to be made about the improvement:

  • Persevere
  • Restore
  • Pivot – Change while keeping fundamentals
  • Try something completely new

If the change brought the results you wanted, you persevere. The new behavior becomes the new baseline, the new standard way in which you operate.

If the change didn’t work as expected and had negative effects, you have two choices: You can either go back to your old behavior (restore), or you can pivot partially or turn to something completely new.

The very important thing to remember when you come to the act phase is that you simultaneously enter the new PDCA cycle and already plan a new improvement and experiment.

The PDCA cycle never stops and that’s what leads to constant validated learning and improvements.

When to use the PDCA cycle of constant improvement

The PDCA cycle can be used by any type of organization where the philosophy of constant improvement is in place. It can be used to improve any process, product or any other part of an organization.

It can also be used to implement new software like project time tracking or time and attendance. The PDCA cycle is also the basic approach when implementing the Total Quality Management or Six Sigma initiatives.

The main idea is that you approach improvement in a very systematic and scientific way, making sure that the change you implemented really works. Try it!

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