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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The PDCA cycle should be used whenever there is a change in a process. These changes come from a few basic reasons.
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 lays the foundation for the entire problem-solving effort. It involves quite a few items.
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 do not fully understand the root cause.
The “Do” step is more than just completing a list of action items.
Experimentation should be a big part of this phase of your problem-solving. If you already knew how to correct things, there is a good chance you would have already done it. Often you want start this step with only a basic idea of what you want to try. You’ll need to play around with the concept before you get it right.
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, make sure you understand why.
Of course, you do want to check to make sure that the problem was actually improved.
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 fully implement the change, document the new process, train your team, and communicate the changes to all the stakeholders.
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 spend a great deal of time studying the process and making sure that you have a deep understanding of how it works, both before and after changes.
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 face the same issues over and over. When you are more effective at getting things done right the first time, your list of accomplishments tends to be longer. That can be a differentiator when promotion time comes around.
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 can have trouble letting go of the controls. When you understand how your team will approach a task, it is far easier to give them latitude.
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