Practical tips on how to use the PDCA cycle

Practical tips on how to use the PDCA cycle

When it comes to how we work, we owe a lot to Toyota. The car manufacturer has kick-started so many techniques for being more efficient; it’s hard to keep track. As you probably know, their most famous creation is Lean, a method for continuous improvement that’s used around the world today. Well PDCA (which stands for Plan-Do-Check-Act) is an offshoot of Lean.

While it was made famous by Toyota, the concept was created by legendary management consultant Dr. William Edwards Deming in the 1950s (which is why it’s sometimes called the ‘Deming Wheel.’) He wanted to create a framework for identifying how a product or service might fail to meet a customer’s needs and came up with PDCA as a solution.

What is PDCA?

PDCA an iterative, four-stage approach for resolving issues. It involves proposing solutions, testing them, assessing the results, and implementing the ones that work.

It’s a powerful framework that helps teams fix problems, avoid recurring mistakes, and continually improve processes, products, and services across all levels of the organization.

When should you use PDCA?

It’s most commonly used when a change of some kind needs to be implemented, usually in response to a problem.

So say, for example, you run a vegetable box company — you source fresh veggies from a local farm, package them up, and ship them out to customers. But you’ve noticed your business has suddenly started receiving bad reviews because the quality has dipped. You need to improve things to keep your customers happy, so you try a new producer for some time for some of your customers, and see what this small group of people think. The results come back positive, so you decide to roll out this new supplier for all of your boxes. This is essentially a PDCA loop in action.

How to run a PDCA cycle yourself

When you’re faced with an issue, it can be tempting to roll out sweeping solutions quickly — but it’s important to take a step back and work through this process methodically, giving due care and attention to each stage. The more time you invest here, the easier it’ll be to reach the right solution.

Let’s start by going through each stage of the acronym in order.

Plan

Start by taking a closer look at your problem or opportunity, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the problem?
  • What’s the context of this problem? (It may be helpful to run a root cause analysis here to get a big-picture view of the issue).
  • What resources do we have to fix this issue? Resources could include budget, tools, people — or all three.
  • What’s the best way to fix the issue with the resources we have? If there aren’t enough resources, how will we go about securing what we need?
  • What are the metrics for success? How will you define whether or not your plan worked?

Do

This is where you implement your plan with a small-scale pilot. Doing it this way means you can test while causing minimal disruption to your overall services if your proposed solution doesn’t work.

It’s important to be flexible during this stage: not everything will work out as intended, so be prepared to go back to the plan and revise it as you go. And remember to record your metrics, so you can track whether your solution has been successful or not.

Check

This is where you refer back to your success metrics and work out whether your plan worked. If it didn’t, go back to stage 1: Plan. If there were issues, but you’re struggling to find out where exactly, a fault tree analysis can help you work out the root cause of the problem.

In the spirit of continuous improvement, you can also use this stage not only to check whether things worked but to see if things could have worked better. Don’t settle for anything less than perfect. Only move onto the next stage when you’re delighted with the outcome.

Act

Did everything work? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then your plan can become the new standard, and you can implement it company-wide. But remember: this is part of Lean Management, which is all about continual improvement. So you’ll want to keep looking for opportunities to make things better.

Final thoughts

PDCA is a tremendous problem-solving tool, but it isn’t suitable for every situation. If you need answers quickly, then this probably isn’t for you because it does require time upfront.

For any other situation where you need to improve a process, product, or service, and you have the time to test your various solutions properly — then this could be the perfect match.

Generally speaking, it’s best for the following two situations:

  • Improving processes, as part of Six Sigma and Total Quality Management.
  • Working through a range of solutions and testing them on a smaller scale before selecting one to roll out across an organization.

As with all initiatives, careful planning, implementation, and monitoring are the difference between a successful project and a flop. Remember to work through each stage in its entirety, and use tools that help you automatically track and record your results.

Project management software will save you the hassle of having to manually track spreadsheets and documents, which quickly lead to time-consuming admin work you could probably do without. It can track task progress, send you notifications when things change, and store all of your data in one, easy-to-access place. With visual tools like Kanban-style boards, Gantt charts, and burndown charts, assessing progress at a glance is simple.

Implementing change is never easy, but the more methodical and organized you are, the more spot-on your solution will be.

Georgina Guthrie Georgina is a displaced Brit currently working in France as a freelance copywriter. Before moving to sunnier climates, she worked as a B2B agency writer in Bristol, England, which is also where she was born. In her spare time, she enjoys old films and cooking (badly).