Don’t Shortcut PDCA!
Submitted by Jeff Lytle, LGC
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PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) is an iterative continuous improvement methodology that has become a widely used model for implementing change. While the words “Do” and “Act” certainly sound more exciting than “Plan” and “Check,” it’s critical to the success of any improvement project or event to maintain discipline in the “Plan” and “Check” phases to ensure the best solutions are put in place. Failing to do so can result in incomplete and ineffective solutions leading to frustration and rework within the PDCA cycle.
In the “Plan” phase, objectives are established and process improvements necessary to deliver on those objectives are determined. This is where stumbles often occur right out of the gate; as plans are developed too quickly – based on predetermined solutions and guesses – without adequate knowledge of the current situation. This results in the “Do” phase being little more than trial and error; and then the “Check” phase being nothing more than figuring out what went wrong so more trial and error can be planned. We don’t have to guess! We can do better!
Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” By slowing down and maintaining discipline during the “Plan” phase, a new understanding – and a new way of thinking – about the current situation can be achieved.
Understanding the current situation involves three critical aspects:
- Observing and mapping the current situation and analyzing associated data
- Further observing and understanding the problems associated with the current situation (what Bruce Hamilton of the famous Toast Kaizen video refers to as those things that “get in the way of your work”).
- Most importantly, determining the causes of those problems. This establishes a foundation of learning that moves past symptoms and into root causes allowing comprehensive solutions to be developed.
Once the current situation is fully understood and a plan for improvement has been established, the “Do” phase is where that plan is implemented for the first time.
Don’t think of this phase as a merely a “test run” or a trial. With the comprehensive learning that has taken place in the “Plan” phase, the “Do” phase can truly be an implementation of what the team believes is a substantial improvement over the current situation; with the opportunity to learn even more, make adjustments, and then implement even greater improvements in the “Check” and “Act” phases.
Significant learning can take place in this phase by observing the newly implemented processes. By partnering with associates to understand what worked well, what new learning has taken place, and what adjustments need to be made, an improved plan – beyond what could have previously been imagined – can be developed to include new learning and further elevate the process. This enables the “Check” phase to be an opportunity to develop comprehensive plans to elevate the process to new heights, rather than simply fixing what went wrong in the “Do” phase.
In the “Act” phase, those comprehensive plans and methods for sustaining the gains are put in place. This can be an exciting time for the team as they see themselves as an integral part of driving continual positive change to achieve new levels of quality, cost, productivity, delivery, and safety.
The urge to move quickly to a predetermined solution must be resisted in favor of developing a comprehensive understanding of the current situation and a new way of thinking. In doing so, you avoid the frustrating cycle of “see a problem – try a fix, see another problem – try another fix” and so on.
In the spirit of continuous improvement, numerous passes through all four phases of the PDCA cycle should be completed until desired future state results are achieved or until business strategies and conditions change and necessitate a different direction.