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What is the Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) cycle?

Make the problem-solving process for your team more refined – and more satisfying – simply by using the PDCA cycle approach.

A team meeting where a problem is being solved with the PDCA management method

What is PDCA?

PDCA is a simple, iterative management approach for testing changes to processes or solutions to problems, and driving continuous improvement to them over time. As with many process and quality control approaches used by various industries today, it originated from manufacturing practices in the 20th century. The simplicity and readily reproducible success of PDCA led to it being used by many industries outside manufacturing, whether by individuals, teams or entire organisations.

Where did PDCA come from?

PDCA was derived from W. Edwards Deming’s 'Shewhart Cycle', named after Walter Shewhart, a statistician often referred to as the father of modern quality control. Deming, an American engineer and professor, was best known for his work in Japan, where his ideas helped influence the country’s post-war industrial processes and recovery. In fact, the name PDCA was coined by participants of his lectures, who streamlined the Shewhart Cycle to 'Plan, Do, Check, Act'. Deming actually preferred 'Study' to 'Check', making it the Plan-Do-Study-Act or PDSA cycle, as the word placed more emphasis on analysing results rather than simply checking what had changed.

Nevertheless, the approach today is best-known as the PDCA cycle, as it is designed to be completed and repeated numerous times. The design and logic can be seen in other manufacturing-based quality management approaches of the time, such as Lean Manufacturing, Kaizen and Six Sigma.

How does the PDCA cycle work?

The PDCA cycle involves 4 steps: Plan, Do, Check, Act. The process is performed in a linear fashion, with the completion of a cycle tying into the beginning of the next cycle.

  • Plan: Understand your current state and the desired state. In the simplest terms, the purpose of the planning phase is to define your aims, how to accomplish them and how you’ll measure your progress towards them. Naturally, this is somewhat of a vague step, as it depends on what you’re trying to do – and different teams approach PDCA in different ways. Some may split it into several intermediary steps, which other processes such as DMAIC already do.

    If you’re looking to leverage an opportunity, then your planning should focus on the processes or actions that are necessary to target that opportunity. If you’re looking to solve a process problem, then a root cause analysis may be needed before you can move forward with a plan. Explore how to do a root cause analysis to help identify and action problems. In any case, using data – whether pre-existing process data or analysis from previous PDCA cycles – will help you formulate a plan of action or hypothesis.

  • Do: Once you have your plan of action or your potential solution for a problem, test it. The Do step is the time for you to put your initial proposed changes to the test. However, this should be seen as an experiment – it is not the point at which you are fully implementing a solution or process change. As such, this phase should be conducted at a small scale in a controlled setting. It shouldn’t be impacted by external factors or disrupt other processes and operations of your team or organisation. Of course, the whole point of this phase is to collect data and information on the impact of the test, as this will inform the next stages of the process.

  • Check: After your pilot test is complete, you need to examine whether your proposed changes or solutions had the intended effect. The Check phase is where you analyse the data gathered from the Do phase and compare it to your original goals and aims. The testing approach you used should also be evaluated, to see if any changes were made to the method set out in the Plan phase that may have affected the process. Overall, the purpose of this step is to evaluate how successful you’ve been, and what should be taken into the next step of the process. In fact, you may choose to run another test, repeating the Do and Check phases until you find a satisfactory solution to take onto the Act phase.

  • Act: Upon reaching the end of the cycle, you and your team should have identified a proposed change from the process to implement. However, the PDCA cycle is called a cycle for a reason, as whatever changes you implement in the Act phase aren’t the end of your process. Your new and improved product, process or solved problem should form a new baseline for further iterations of the PDCA cycle.

Teams and practitioners of PDCA will typically work out what tools work best for themselves in each phase. However, whether you’re brainstorming in the Plan phase or collating your data at the Check stage, Dropbox Paper can help you manage every part of the process. Shared project planning documents can help you outline your process, while collaboration tools can keep your team involved and on track as you iterate with PDCA. And of course, all your documents are files that are easily shareable through Dropbox storage.

Why should you use PDCA?

At its core, PDCA provides a standardised approach and guiding philosophy for team members and employees to resolve issues and continuously improve their work. However, this could be said of many management and quality control approaches, all with varying levels of complexity and numbers of success stories. What makes PDCA special compared to the rest?

The main reason is that PDCA or Plan, Do, Check, Act is a simple, straightforward and intuitive process for people to grasp and implement into their work. This has made it not only enduring in the world of work, but also pervasive across industries and in people’s minds. While it still requires a degree of buy-in from your colleagues to make it work in teams, PDCA’s simplicity makes it easy to bake into your organisational culture and overall processes.

Due to its cyclical and iterative nature, PDCA also helps you to iron out mistakes and prevent them from occurring in the future. The cycle is designed to help you identify errors and their root causes as you repeatedly optimise a process. As you continue to test different solutions and successfully implement them, you’ll also build up data and experience in understanding the process. At this point, PDCA becomes more than a problem-solving approach, as it can add valuable information that’s relevant to different processes in your team or organisation.

PDCA is a highly adaptable strategy. Some may prescribe certain documents or steps to be completed during the Plan phase to ensure that they are ready to proceed with the rest of the cycle. However, what needs to be defined or planned is ultimately up to you and your team, providing it can sustain the rest of the process. This adaptability in turn makes PDCA scalable, as it can be adapted to any situation and for teams of any size – even down to a team of one.

When should you use PDCA?

While some problem-solving and management approaches can be time- and resource-intensive to apply, PDCA’s adaptability means it is rarely non-applicable. If you are looking to make consistent improvement to your own work processes or those of your team, then PDCA is a good option. However, PDCA’s methodical, incrementalist approach means that change happens gradually. As such, it may not be as suitable if your organisation is dealing with an urgent issue with processes or an emergency. Equally, if you are looking to see fast turnarounds in performance and results, PDCA may not give you what you’re looking for. PDCA’s strength is in its ability to continually identify problems, then refine and find optimal methods – it is unlikely to completely solve an issue or turn around performance after a singular iteration.

Continual refinement with PDCA

At its core, PDCA is a philosophy for approaching situations. First, you identify the situation and set goals, then you test different approaches for reaching those goals, review their success and adjust your behaviour accordingly, before finally moving forward with what has worked. If it’s not realistic for your team or organisation to integrate PDCA directly, it still offers guiding principles to help you understand and approach any situation you come across in the workplace and beyond.

While being so simple, PDCA is still a process that requires rigour and mastery in order to truly benefit from it. However, adopting it – and then sticking to it – can really change the way you and your team work, with measurable results you can see as time and iterations go by. Promoting PDCA within your teams and organisation – with successful uptake – can help move all your colleagues towards a mindset for problem-solving and critical thinking.

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