PDCA Cycle

The PDCA cycle, also known as the Deming cycle or the Shewhart cycle, is a tool used in continuous improvement processes.
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Brief History of the PDCA Cycle

The PDCA Cycle, also known as the Deming Wheel or Shewhart Cycle, is a systematic series of steps designed for the continual improvement of processes and products. Its inception dates back to the 1920s, when Walter A. Shewhart introduced the concept of Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) in his work at Bell Laboratories. Shewhart’s idea was further developed and popularised by Dr. W. Edwards Deming, an American statistician and quality control expert, who modified it to Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA).

Deming used the PDCA cycle to illustrate that improvement isn’t a one-time event, but a continual process. He successfully applied it in Japan during the post-World War II era to rebuild the country’s industry. This cycle is also widely recognised as the basis of critical pathways, care maps, and standard operating procedures across various industries.

The PDCA cycle has had a significant impact on quality management, with its principles being instrumental in the development of modern quality initiatives such as Six Sigma and Lean. Its simplicity, flexibility, and focus on continuous improvement have made it a powerful tool in process improvement and problem-solving.

The PDCA Cycle and Lean

The Lean methodology, which aims to minimise waste and maximise value in processes, heavily utilises the PDCA cycle. Lean is about creating the most value for the customer while minimising resources, time, energy, and effort used. The PDCA cycle fits perfectly into this concept as it is designed for continuous improvement, a core principle of Lean.

The cycle facilitates the identification and elimination of waste or non-value-adding activities in a process. It allows for the systematic evaluation and improvement of work processes, ensuring that the focus is always on providing the highest value to the customer.

In Lean, the PDCA cycle is used in different aspects, from process improvement to problem-solving and standardisation of work. It is also used to create a culture of continuous improvement, where everyone in the organisation is involved in improving the processes, services, or products.

The PDCA Cycle for Continuous Improvement

The PDCA cycle is a powerful tool for continuous improvement. It encourages an organisation to adopt a cyclical approach to problem-solving and process improvement. This approach fosters a culture of constant learning and adaptation, contributing to the long-term success of the organisation.

The cycle begins with the planning phase, where a problem is identified, and a plan to solve it is developed. The ‘do’ phase involves implementing the plan on a small scale, followed by the ‘check’ phase where the results are evaluated. The ‘act’ phase involves making necessary adjustments based on the evaluation. The cycle then repeats with a new plan, leading to constant improvement.

The PDCA cycle emphasises the need for feedback and adaptation. By continually measuring results and adjusting strategies based on these measurements, organisations can achieve continuous improvement in their processes, products, and services.

Steps in the PDCA Cycle

1: Plan

PDCA Cycle: 1. Plan

The first step in the PDCA cycle is to plan. The planning phase involves identifying a problem or opportunity for improvement and developing a hypothesis on how to improve the situation. This phase requires a deep understanding of the current situation and the desired outcome.

The planning stage also involves defining clear, measurable objectives and deciding on the metrics to monitor progress. A well-thought-out plan should also include a detailed action plan with specific tasks, responsibilities, and timelines.

Some useful questions to ask at this stage might be:

  1. What is the problem or issue that we need to address?
  2. What are the root causes of this problem or issue?
  3. What is our objective or desired outcome?
  4. What changes can we implement to address the root causes and achieve our objective?
  5. How will we measure the effectiveness of our plan?

2: Do

PDCA Cycle: 2. Do

The second step in the PDCA cycle is the ‘do’ phase. This phase involves implementing the plan on a small scale to test the hypothesis. It is important to document all changes made and collect data for later analysis. This phase is all about action, but it’s also about learning.

During the ‘do’ phase, it’s useful to remain flexible and open to learning. The team should be prepared to encounter unexpected challenges and be ready to adapt the plan as needed. This phase is not just about executing the plan, but also about gathering valuable insights that will inform the next steps of the cycle.

3: Check

PDCA Cycle: 3. Check

The third step in the PDCA cycle is the ‘check’ phase. This phase involves evaluating the results of the ‘do’ phase against the planned objectives. The data collected is analysed to understand the effect of the changes made. If the results are not as expected, it’s essential to understand why and learn from it.

The “Check” phase of the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) Cycle is considered the most important because it is where the analysis of the actions taken during the “Do” phase occurs. The data collected is compared to the initial expectations. Any key trends, patterns, anomalies, or deviations from the plan are identified and analyzed. The potential causes for discrepancies between planned and actual results are also identified. The insights and lessons derived from this phase then inform the adjustments that need to be made in the “Act” phase, making the “Check” phase crucial for continuous improvement.

Questions worth considering in the Check phase might include:

  1. What were the intended objectives of the “Do” phase?
  2. Have we achieved these objectives?
  3. What data has been collected during the execution phase?
  4. How does the data compare to our initial expectations?
  5. What are the key trends or patterns in the data?
  6. Were there any unexpected outcomes or anomalies in the data?
  7. Can any deviations from the plan be justified by changes in the external environment?
  8. What are the potential causes for any discrepancies between the planned and actual results?
  9. What lessons can we learn from the data and the execution of the plan?
  10. Based on the results, what adjustments need to be made in the “Act” phase?

4: Act

PDCA Cycle: 4. Act

The final step in the PDCA cycle is the ‘act’ phase. This phase involves making necessary adjustments based on the results of the ‘check’ phase. If the plan was successful, the changes are standardised and implemented on a wider scale. If the plan was not successful, the insights gained are used to revise the plan, and the cycle begins again.

When to use the PDCA Cycle

The PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) Cycle can be used in a wide range of situations such as:

  1. Quality Control: Ensuring products or services meet specific standards of quality.
  2. Process Improvement: Identifying inefficiencies or problems in work processes, and implementing and testing solutions.
  3. Product Development: Using the cycle to iteratively develop and improve a new product, based on customer feedback and testing.
  4. Change Management: Implementing new business strategies or structural changes within an organization.
  5. Problem-Solving: Addressing specific issues or challenges within a team or organization.
  6. Risk Management: Identifying potential risks and devising strategies to mitigate them.
  7. Software Development: In Agile methodologies, the PDCA cycle is used to continuously improve the software based on user feedback.
  8. Education and Training: PDCA is used for improving teaching methods and learning outcomes.
  9. Healthcare: For improving patient care and reducing errors in hospitals and clinics.
  10. Customer Service: To improve customer experience and satisfaction.

Remember, the PDCA cycle is a model for continuous improvement and can be applied in any situation where you want to improve a process, product, or service.

Examples of the PDCA Cycle in Real Situations

Here’s a real-world example of the PDCA cycle in action:

  1. Plan: A restaurant owner notices that many customers complain about slow service during peak hours. The owner decides to address this problem by introducing a new system for managing orders. The plan involves training staff on the new system and implementing it during peak hours.
  2. Do: The owner implements the new system during peak hours, training all the staff on how to use it. The new system involves taking orders on a digital tablet that sends the order directly to the kitchen, reducing the time taken to process orders.
  3. Check: After a month of using the new system, the owner reviews customer feedback and compares the service speed during peak hours to the previous system. The owner finds that service speed has significantly improved and there are fewer customer complaints about slow service.
  4. Act: Given the success of the new system, the owner decides to fully adopt it for all hours of operation. The owner also considers other ways the digital ordering system could be used to further improve service, such as integrating it with a customer loyalty program.

Here’s another example of how a team in a charity organisation used the PDCA cycle to improve and standardise its donation collection process.

  1. Plan: The charity organization identified a problem with its donation collection process – it was inconsistent and inefficient. The team decided to create a standardized system for collecting and tracking donations. They planned to use a digital platform to manage all donations, which would allow for easy tracking and reporting. This new system was designed to eliminate manual errors, reduce processing time, and increase productivity.
  2. Do: The team implemented the new digital donation system on a trial basis. They trained all relevant staff members on how to use it and closely monitored its execution to ensure the system worked as planned. During this phase, the team focused on ensuring a smooth transition to the new system, resolving any minor issues that arose.
  3. Check: After a month of using the new digital donation system, the team reviewed the outcomes. They examined the efficiency of the new system by comparing processing times and error rates with the old system. They also gathered feedback from staff members and donors. The team found that processing times had significantly decreased, error rates were down, and staff found the new system easier to use. Donors also appreciated the transparency and efficiency of the new system.
  4. Act: Given the success of the new system, the charity decided to officially adopt it. The team also considered how the digital platform could be further utilized to improve the donor experience, such as integrating it with a donor recognition program or using it to provide regular updates to donors on how their contributions were being used.

The PDCA cycle in this example helped the charity organisation identify a problem, develop a solution, and iteratively improve upon the solution based on real-world testing and feedback.

Conclusion

The PDCA cycle is a powerful improvement tool, applicable in various settings. In this case, it allowed a charity organisation to significantly improve and standardize its donation collection process. This systematic approach fosters constant learning and adaptation, contributing to the long-term success of any organization, regardless of its industry or size. Therefore, it is beneficial for all organisations to understand and apply the PDCA cycle in their operations for continual improvement.

In conclusion, the PDCA cycle is a powerful tool for continuous improvement. Its systematic approach encourages constant learning and adaptation, contributing to the long-term success of any organisation, regardless of its industry or size. Therefore, it would be beneficial for all organisations to understand and apply the PDCA cycle in their operations for continual improvement.

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 James Freeman-Gray 

I'm James. A change consultant and organisational development specialist. I've been working in people-centred change for over 15 years. I partner with causes, champions, teams & leaders on projects for social, environmental, technological & human good. If you think I can support in making your change a success, drop me a message. 

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