“Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.”
– Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known under his pen name Mark Twain, American author and humorist (1835-1910)
As part of the famous “Kaizen” (改善) practices introduced to Japan post World War II to help the country reconstruction, Deming advised among others a simple technique, the Shewhart cycle, more commonly called the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle, in order to improve company processes in manufacturing, engineering and business management. Since then, the PDCA cycle (also called the Deming Wheel) has frequently been used as a management best practice to support the continuous improvement of systems and organizations. This post summarizes some recommendations for each phase of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.
Download a one-page executive summary here (PDF or JPEG format): Continuous Improvement: the Deming Wheel (PDCA)
Because the performance of the companies we work for is highly dependent on the quality of their underlying systems (understand “system” here in its broad meaning of a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole, from a production chain to a sales process, an organization structure or a business strategy), changing those for the better becomes an obvious objective for any business leader.
Before initiating any PDCA cycle, there is a very first important step, sometimes referred as the “Observation” phase, which simply consists in identifying what already rolls with very little waste or friction in your organization, from what partially runs but could be optimized further, from what does not work at all. Beyond performing your own study or referring to external auditors for this phase, and because improving a system for a better performance should be everyone’s responsibility, at all level of the organization, the best place to start is often with your direct teams, peers, providers and customers. Here are two simple methods to engage your teams in such a discussion:
Run a risk exercise with your teams: ask each of your team member to list the three main risks that they may think of for the team / department / company by answering specifically to the four points below.
- What is the fact or else the specific condition at the origin of the risks?
- What are the consequences from this fact or conditions?
- What is the impact for the team / department / company
- What are the possible risk mitigation plans? (Usually, the more specific the answers to the first three questions are, the easier it is to identify mitigation action plans)
Here is a concrete example of risk exercise:
1. Fact or specific condition: the weekend support activities initiated 4 weeks ago for the release X are prepared individually by each implementation engineer on a customer-by-customer basis, without minimum notification timeframe being requested to the client.
- in the past 4 weeks, 5 change tasks lists out of 6 regarding Release X were prepared last minute (with less than 48h notice) and were not consistent across the team (4 different task lists out of 6), making it more complex and time-consuming for the four-eye check by the Service Desk,
- in total, 8 employees came on the weekend for those 6 changes in the past 4 weeks where it could have been performed by 5 engineers through scripting,
- 1 employee has been identified at risk because of too many weekend work activities.
3. Impact: high risk of operation mishandling implying potential reputational impact and client business loss and increased cost for weekend support and four-eye check, staff turnover due to repeated weekend activities
4. possible mitigation plan: implement a process of weekend work validation at the team level, involving senior staff and Service Desk to identify common framework and intervention and possible scripting activities
Ask each of your staff what they think they should start / keep / stop doing, why and how? In order to get to the bottom of your staff comments and answers, make sure to ask probing questions.
Moreover, while grasping the current situation of your company and listing the priority of what you want to improve first, make sure to understand as well the interdependency between each system you analyze: you may find some simple systems with very little interactions with other parts of your company but you may also discover complex core systems, systems of systems involving various subsystems and that are highly entrenched at all level of your organization. In the latter case, keep the following two basic points in mind:
- “Great” must not be the enemy of “Good”. If you tend to be perfectionist and face a complex system to improve, you may not be in a position to find the direct final perfect answer! And even if you do so, you may face difficulties in identifying where to start. Don’t freeze there… Even very complex systems can usually be divided in smaller subsystems; breakdown your issue in smaller problems that you can more easily grasp and tackle. The PDCA cycle is also thought to run iteratively to improve on the long run, in a continuous manner. Go for some small incremental steps and several iterations of the cycle to ease the approach of large complex systems. You will then become “Good” to become later “Great”! It will also give you the flexibility to modify your approach if needs be.
- “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French writer, poet, and pioneering aviator (1900 – 1944)
Following this first observation phase, you and your team now know what you want to improve and are all together ready to push the Deming Wheel on the Kaizen road, rolling through the four following phases: Plan, Do, Check and Act.
- Plan: Regular Project Management best practices can easily apply here. In a nutshell, our recommendation is to “go slow to go fast”! The more you prepare your project execution upfront, the less risk you have to fail and engage in expensive corrective actions in the “Act” phase. You will find below a non-exhaustive list of items you may want to check to help preparing your plan.
- write a simple one-liner mission statement that you can share easily
- specify clearly and precisely the desired outcome and related deliverables
- define the metrics, Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and Measure of Success (MoS)
- identify a unique project owner, the project team, the related stakeholders and a potential sponsor
- precise the project milestones, beginning, end and dependencies
- list the required resources and means to ensure project completion (resource, technology, training…)
- in case of structural or organizational change, anticipate and remove resistance by ensuring project buy-in (through proper communication plan, proposing a pilot step, identification of quick wins…)
- Do: the success of your system improvement will rely as much on your planning as on the rigor of your execution. The key word here is to make sure that accountability around the various project tasks and activities is clearly defined.
- look at your task breakdown and ensure a single person is accountable for the execution, reporting to the project owner
- have the project owner running regular progress update review, asking for binary answer on the task execution for high-level progress overview (Is the task closed or open? If not closed, is it started?)
- update your sponsor and stakeholders on the project progress (and faced challenges) and seek for feedback in order to confirm the direction (especially in volatile project environment), share the feedbacks with the project team and explore blocking issues for alternative solutions
- communicate project updates accordingly to remove further resistance to change
- Check: This analysis phase consists in studying the obtained result. Have the goals and objectives been met? If not why? What are the root causes? This phase usually encompasses the below activities.
- compare obtained results and project outputs against the initial specifications and project MoS defined in the “Plan” phase to evaluate the project performance
- identify deviation from the plan, success and failures and their related root cause (the 5-Why technique can be used here to help getting to the root cause of an item in parallel to asking penetrating questions)
- run the lessons learned from the “Plan” and “Do” phases making sure to highlight possible improvement areas for future cycle iterations
- Act: Based on the outputs of the “Check” phase, you should be able to easily identify what to adjust in order to get closer to the expect results defined in the “Plan” phase and to deduct the related possible corrective actions. You are then ready to start a new iteration of the PDCA cycle. But before that, also make sure to close this cycle by communicating your achievements to your sponsor, stakeholders and any other parties involved in this project as well as by providing the project team with feedbacks on their performance and by describing the next expected steps for the coming cycle (whether the same team will get involved or not in the next cycle).
- exercise 1: Run the risk exercise described in the “Observation” phase by yourself. Then run it as well with your direct reports. Are they common items raised by yourself and by your staff? Which priority would you set for each of the risk (High/Medium/Low)?
- exercise 2: Run the “start/keep/stop doing” exercise described in the “Observation” phase by yourself and then with your direct reports. Answer the same questions as the ones from exercise 1.
- exercise 3: Pick one high priority item from exercise 1 or exercise 2 and prepare on paper the “Plan” phase of the PDCA cycle. Which difficulties have you encountered? How would you overcome those difficulties, should you start the PDCA cycle in reality?
In order to improve the performance of a company, it is a common practice to improve its underlying structure, processes and other system components using a Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) approach. Once areas of improvement have been selected and prioritized through a preliminary “Observation” phase, the PDCA technique (also known as Deming Wheel) promotes a continuous improvement approach by running iteratively through a 4-stage cycle. First, The “Plan” phase of the cycle allows to define precise goals and measures of success while requiring as well to bring all risks and dependencies upfront for a greater efficiency in execution. Then, the “Do” phase is the place for project execution, reinforced by clearly defined ownership and accountability for each activity. The “Check” phase is the time of analysis, focusing on analyzing the difference between the obtained results and the initial objectives as well as the related root cause. Finally, the “Act” phase proposes to define the corrective actions and possible adjustments based on the “Check” phase outputs and closes the cycle while preparing for the next cycle iteration. Embedding this very simple PDCA method in your company practises will help to initiate the virtuous circle of continuous improvement through small, tangible, incremental steps, leading to enhanced performance with each single iteration.
Last Revision: 2015 March 28