How to Use the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) Model


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The plan-do-check-act (PDCA) model has been helping businesses improve their processes for decades. This guide breaks down what PDCA involves and how to implement it in your organization.

Sometimes as an organization, you feel like you've hit a wall. You and your team work harder and harder, but get the same results. You’ve hit a plateau, and you're not sure how to break free.

It's times like these when you must take a breath, examine your processes, and figure out how you can improve what you do. But how? There's a lot of debate in the business world about this and many approaches.

However, one method has stood the test of time, having been used since the mid-20th century: the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) method.

PDCA helps organizations get out of a funk and improve their internal processes to constantly promote positive change, repeatedly. And what business can't use something like that?

One of the principles of project management is to always improve how you do things, and PDCA is one way to do that. Use the PDCA to improve just about anything, from resource management to production to the overall project management process itself.

Overview: What is the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) model?

Plan-do-check-act, or PDCA, is a method organizations use to continually improve their internal processes, increasing the quality of their products and the overall efficiency of their business. PDCA is also called the Deming wheel, Deming cycle, or Shewhart cycle, after some of its earliest proponents.

The process has slight variations, including swapping out "act" for "adjust," or "plan" for "observation." It has influenced the evolving concept of lean manufacturing. While it is often used for the product development process, it can be applied to any business or organizational process that needs improvement.

William Edwards Deming (1900-1993), who is sometimes referred to as the father of modern quality control, was the first to make the concept of PDCA popular. Walter Andrew Shewhart (1891-1967) further refined the concept.

PDCA works by confirming or negating a hypothesis, which starts a cycle that can be repeated over and over to continually improve processes and procedures closer to an ideal.

Benefits and disadvantages of using the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) models

PDCA doesn’t have universal acclaim, at least not in modern times. The business world still debates its efficacy and applicability in today’s environment.

Advantages of PDCA

The cyclical nature of PDCA drives an organization to continually improve a process or product, driving it ever closer to an ideal state. Its simplicity makes it easier to follow the procedure, making it broadly applicable in several business situations.

It's also a way to create an adaptive project framework, which helps an organization address unknown factors that may affect a project.

Disadvantages of PDCA

PDCA is primarily reactive rather than proactive, meaning the individual or team responds to a problem rather than focusing on managing the process effectively from the outset and planning improvements to the process proactively.

PDCA has its critics, who call it a relic of the 20th century that is no longer a good management practice. They argue businesses have substantially evolved and more advanced processes such as ISO 9000 are superior.

How to use the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) model

The PDCA is a four-step process. Here’s what each step means and how to enact it.

1. Plan

The planning phase kicks off the PDCA cycle. Here, you identify problems or issues and determine how these should be addressed. Once you've identified a problem, you assess your resources and plot a course of action to address it. Then you develop a change management plan to lay out how that action will be executed.

Note: Some variations add “observation” before planning (OPDCA), meaning you observe the process in action and set the cycle in motion when you spot an issue needing to be addressed. Then, and only then, do you launch into the planning phase.

Example: A manager notices sales have declined consistently for the past three months throughout the department. After examining the data, she identifies decreasing cold call volume as the culprit. She further finds, over that time period, salespeople have increased the number of voicemails they leave, which has a low response rate. She decides the best action is to tell salespeople not to leave voice mails but to immediately proceed to the next number on the list.

2. Do

Do is the action phase and follows planning. The individual or team sets the plan in motion, making changes and reassessing the impact of those changes to determine if further adjustments should be made. They perform the prescribed actions and test results.

Example: The sales team gradually ramps down voicemail calls, rather than stopping them altogether, over a period of days so they can carefully monitor implementation and keep an eye on the early results.

3. Check

In the check phase, the individual or team collects the results and compares them to the objectives. They ask whether the actions are having the desired results, or if the data is showing something different, suggesting that it may be necessary to start the cycle over again.

Note: Deming originally used “study” here for plan-do-study-act (the PDSA cycle), but adopters in Japan in the 1950s changed it to “check.” However, Deming felt study was more apt, since it involved a more robust examination than the word “check” connotes in the English language.

Example: The manager monitors call volume data and watches it slowly increase, confirming her hypothesis that too many voicemails were keeping call volume down.

4. Act

With a full analysis completed, it's time to act on the information. If you've noticed that you're getting the results you want, and it's clear the change has caused those results, fully implement it and make it a permanent part of the process.

This is the new standard in your organization. Now, go back to the start of the cycle and begin all over again if you notice another issue that needs your team's attention.

Note: Some variations use the term “adjust” here. Some feel it more accurately conveys what is happening in this step and distinguishes it from the “do” phase.

Example: The manager reviews the results and sees call volume is not only increasing, but the reason for the change, declining sales volume, is turning around. This provides evidence that the change is good, and therefore should become part of the sales team's standard processes. She revises the master sales process document to reflect the change and sets up a training to get the sales team up to speed on the new process.

Use software to implement PDCA concepts

Project management software has incorporated many best practices such as PDCA to make it easier to improve the way your business runs. The Ascent has reviewed the top software options, so check out a few to see if any fit your business. Then give a few a trial run, and settle on one you like the most.

Meanwhile, continually research and embrace methods for improving your business. You’re never going to grow as an organization if you’re stuck in old ways of doing things. Implement change management models, try out alternatives to PDCA.

Experiment until you find a way to run your business that works for you and your team. Never stop improving it.

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