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PDCA Cycle (+11-Page PDF, +Video)

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The PDCA cycle is a structured problem solving approach. It is also known as the Deming cycle, after Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the man credited with popularizing the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.

PDCA Cycle Overview

The PDCA Cycle

The 4 Steps of the PDCA Cycle include:

  • Plan. The plan step of the PDCA cycle entails setting objectives and gathering the information needed to make improvements.
  • Do. In this step, the problem solver implements the plan. They will often do experiments or pilot projects as well.
  • Check. Problem solving requires confirmation that the change actually improved things. Problem solvers do this in the ‘Check’ step of the PDCA cycle.
  • Act. After checking, a problem solver must act on the information. It could be stabilizing the change, if things are going well, or repeating the PDCA cycle if there was still an unresolved problem.

The PDCA cycle is frequently associated with daily management. Leaders in Lean organizations have a responsibility to make things better. This tool helps them use a structured approach to make decisions when solving problems.

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The Definition of a Problem

The basic definition of a problem is that there is a gap between and expectation and reality. The gap can be formed in one of three main ways.

  1. There is a decline in performance and the expectation stays the same.
  2. The expectation rises even though there is no change in performance. This shift in expectation can come from an internal decision or in reaction to changes a competitor is making.
  3. The location of the gap changes. An example of this is a regulatory change that demands both a new expectation and a shift in process that leads to a new level of actual performance.

Why People Fail at Problem-Solving

There are many reasons why people fall short in their problem solving efforts. There are three basic ones, though, that are more common than the rest. Fortunately, these are also relatively easy to solve.

  1. People treat symptoms. Focusing on symptoms is the Band-Aid approach. In most cases when this is done, the problem will simply pop out sideways. A better approach is to go after the root cause and solve the problem once and for all.
  2. People don’t set clear goals. If you don’t have a target is impossible to know whether you solved the problem. You can make progress without a clear goal, but you’ll never know if you’ve made enough progress to get where you want to go.
  3. People act without consensus. Few processes affect only a single person. Making changes requires buy-in. When people solve problems in their head, it is much harder to convince others that the approach is correct.

Why Use a Structured Problem Solving Approach?

Structured problem-solving helps address the common failure modes. The first thing it does is helps to prevent errors. People are less likely to skip important steps or make other procedural mistakes when they are following a process.

That process also helps with communication and teamwork. Because a structured problem-solving approach, such as the PDCA process, is widely known, others can catch up very quickly. You don’t have to explain your process for problem-solving to people. You simply have to show what you did. Not only does this speed the communication and coordination time, but it also instills a much higher level of confidence in others.

Using a structured approach also helps improve the problem-solving process itself. Without a standard approach is very challenging to get better at problem-solving. Using a method provides a basis for improvement.

Closely related to improving the process is improving one’s ability to follow the process. Structured approaches like PDCA let a mentor be more effective in guiding a student. The framework lets them to focus on the student’s thought process about the problem, rather than about the approach the student is taking.

History of the PDCA Cycle

W. Edwards Deming was a quality guru who was instrumental in laying the foundation for recovery in post-World War II Japan. He is also widely considered to be the creator of the PDCA cycle. In fact, this methodology is often called the Deming cycle.

The truth though, is that Deming did not create this process on his own. He based his cycle on the idea of Walter Shewhart. Shewhart, though presented his original cycle as “Plan-Do-Observe-Study.”

Deming’s method was taught to Japanese companies, one of which was Toyota. Eventually Toyota’s success led to a great deal of study of its methods, which brought the PDCA cycle into global prominence.

Incidentally, there are stories that later in life Deming claimed that PDCA actually came from a translation error. He preferred PDSA, meaning “Plan-Do-Study-Act” or “Plan-Do-Study-Adjust”. The issue was that “check” was much more cursory than “study” and did not promote as deep of an understanding of the problem.

Alternative Problem Solving Methodologies

The PDCA cycle is not the only problem-solving methodology in common use in the continuous improvement world. DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control) is a structure used in Six Sigma. 8D or The 8 Disciplines is another commonly used problem-solving method. Even the basic process of a kaizen event promotes structured problem-solving.

The truth is there is a great deal of overlap in each of these methods. While each might be most suitable to a specific situation, using any of them will greatly improve your ability to get effective solutions.

When to Use the PDCA Cycle

The PDCA cycle should be used whenever there is a change in a process. These changes come from a few basic reasons.

  1. An issue is identified and needs to be resolved.
  2. An opportunity or need for improvement presents itself.
  3. An external change, such as a regulatory requirement demands a new process.

Notice that each of these things is closely related to the definition of problem presented earlier. All three of these reasons create a change in the gap.

The “Plan” Step

The plan step lays the foundation for the entire problem-solving effort. It involves quite a few items.

  • ID the problem
  • Define the problem
  • Do you need a stopgap?
  • Set SMART goals
  • Collect data
  • Determine…

The last item on this list is one of the most frequently overlooked. It is closely related to the hypothesis step of the scientific method. If you cannot properly predict the outcome of your changes, you most likely…

The “Do” Step

The “Do” step is more than just completing a list of action items.

  • Experiment
  • Pilot, if needed
  • Implement changes

Experimentation should be a big part of this phase of your problem-solving. If you already knew how to correct things…

The “Check” Step

The “check” step should more accurately be described as “study.” The major focus should be on learning about the process. You should also be looking at whether your prediction was on track or not. If it was not…

The “Act” Step

Regardless of the outcome of the previous step, you have to take action. If you did not get things right, you have to go back to an earlier part of the PDCA cycle, and try again.

If you got things correct, though, your work is still not done. You have to…

The PDSA Cycle (Plan-Do-Study-Adjust)

As mentioned earlier, Deming actually preferred PDSA. There is also a consistent rumble of people who push for this alternative.

The truth though, is that PDCA is far too entrenched for it to be supplanted. That does not mean that the reason for the change is flawed. The key is to…

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  • Resist the urge to skip steps, especially while you are inexperienced with PDCA.
  • Make sure you have a good understanding of the root cause before making any changes.
  • Be specific about your goals. That means deadlines and specific numerical targets.
  • Don’t skimp on the planning time. People tend to…

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Using a problem-solving methodology gives you credibility with your leaders. When you simply tell them about a change you like to make, or a problem you’re having, your information can get lost in the noise. Managers are extremely busy. The better you can package something for them, the more likely they are to use the information.

The PDCA cycle is something that helps your manager quickly fathom what you are trying to tell them. It saves them time and shows your commitment to solving the problem. Both of those make it more likely that you will get the assistance you need.

A further benefit of learning a structured problem-solving methodology is that it will separate you from those around you. Most people do not follow a process when solving problems. As a result, they tend to…

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The PDCA cycle gives you an outstanding opportunity to mentor your team. You don’t get to just see the results of what they are doing. You also get insight into how they think. That knowledge will help you focus your coaching effort. You can try to cultivate their strength and address their weaknesses in a more effective manner.

In addition, using structured problem-solving conserves your resources. You should only be spending you and your team’s limited time and effort on a particular problem one time. Far too often a problem comes back over and over. Not only is this wasteful, but it also hurts morale.

A big benefit of PDCA is that it allows you to delegate tasks and be able to follow progress better. The problem for managers, especially inexperienced ones, is that they…

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  • The PDCA cycle is a structured approach to closing the gap between the current situation and the target condition.
  • Structured problem-solving not only helps prevent mistakes, it also acts as a great communication tool.
  • Managers have more confidence in their team when they know the PDCA cycle is being used. That means they will be more willing to delegate, and will grant more authority for teams to make changes on their own.

A PDF of this term is included in our Phase 3 Information Series.

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