PDCA Cycle: The Plan-do-check-act Cycle In A Nutshell

The PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle was first proposed by American physicist and engineer Walter A. Shewhart in the 1920s. The PDCA cycle is a continuous process and product improvement method and an essential component of the lean manufacturing philosophy.

Understanding the PDCA cycle

It was later popularised by fellow engineer and statistician W. Edwards Deming, widely attributed as the father of modern quality control.

Deming called it the Shewhart Cycle after his mentor and applied its principles to improving production processes during the Second World War. 

Today, the PDCA cycle is useful in any industry or setting in multiple contexts. These include:

  • Continuous improvement or the establishment of a new improvement project.
  • Developing or refining the design of a product, service, or process.
  • Clarifying a repetitive work process.
  • Data collection and analysis to verify or identify problems or root causes.
  • Change implementation.

The four components of the PDCA cycle

The PDCA cycle is an iterative, systematic, four-stage approach.

Following is a look at each stage:

Plan (P) – in the first stage, a plan is created from a recognized opportunity for improvement or change

Here, decision-makers need to clarify core problems by developing hypotheses for each.

They must also determine what resources they have and what they are lacking.

In other words, is the initiative feasible? Could it be scaled? Lastly, goals must be established – under what circumstances would the initiative be considered successful?

Do (D) – then, it is time to develop, implement, and test the solution

Unforeseen problems may occur during implementation, so it is useful to start small and in a controlled environment.

Before work is carried out, standardization of roles, responsibilities, and methods must also be established.

Check (C) – arguably the most important stage. Do the test results accept or reject the hypotheses?

Furthermore, do the tests support initiative or project objectives? Even successful tests may have problems or inefficiencies that offer room for improvement.

Consult a variety of relevant stakeholders to encourage diverse opinions.

Act (A) – in the final stage, a refined initiative is implemented and becomes the new baseline for any future PDCA cycle

Required resources and employee training should be quantified for organization-wide scaling.

Metrics that measure and track the performance of the initiative overtime should also be clarified. Failed initiatives move back to the first stage and are adjusted to prepare for a new cycle.

Advantages of the PDCA cycle


As noted earlier, the PDCA cycle can be used wherever change or continuous improvement is required.

Applications are possible in change management, product development, project management, and quality improvement.

The Mayo Clinic used quality improvement to reduce wait times for candidates qualifying for cochlear implant surgery.

Using the cycle, the hospital and research center, it was able to reduce the median cycle time for testing from 7.3 to 3 hours.


The PDCA cycle is also relatively simple to understand and implement.

This reduces inefficiencies arising from misunderstandings or misuse and facilitates buy-in from key stakeholders.

Disadvantages of the PDCA Cycle

Requires commitment

The PDCA cycle is not something a business can perform once and then file away in a cabinet.

This continuous and cyclical process requires commitment which must be demonstrated from senior management to permeate down through the organization.


The PDCA cycle is an effective but rather time-consuming process.

Some businesses will see its effectiveness as a major advantage, but it is nevertheless unsuitable for urgent problems, emergencies, or other initiatives requiring speedier resolution.


The cycle is also somewhat reactive since it assumes everything starts with planning.

The basic philosophy of PDCA is planning and performing an activity first and responding to drawbacks later.

This approach of correcting (and not pre-empting) mistakes discourage innovation, dynamism, and creativity.

Ultimately, this makes it unsuitable for many modern business environments that demand proactive thinking.

PDCA cycle examples

Here are a few ways the PDCA cycle could be used in a real-world setting.

Health care establishment

Consider the example of a hospital that forms a team to improve patient care and outcomes.

Once the task ahead of them is properly understood, the team expects to use the PDCA cycle to improve patient feedback scores by 55%.

To achieve this in practice, the team identifies various contributing factors such as the hospital air filtration system, nurse training, visiting hours, and access to facilities.

Members decide that nurse training is the factor most likely to influence patient care in the hospital.

With this in mind, the PDCA team implements a revised nurse development program and tests its efficacy on new recruits.

In the months after implementation, the team routinely evaluates the impact of the new program by collecting patient feedback and comparing it to the stated improvement level of 55%.

At some point, the new influx of nurses and re-training of existing staff help the hospital achieve its objective.

Moving forward, the hospital plans to introduce the initiative to other departments with periodic reviews to ensure it remains successful.

Hiring agency

Now imagine a hiring agency whose primary function is to review job applications and schedule interviews for eligible candidates.

After six months in operation, the hiring agency realizes that candidates who are penciled in for an interview often find jobs with other providers beforehand.

Since the viability of the hiring agency relies on providing talent or labor for its clients, a team uses the PDCA cycle to make the process more efficient.

Understanding that reviewing applications takes longer than it should, the HR team proposes that a new administrator position be created.

This individual would be tasked with filtering applications or establishing an applicant tracking system (ATS).

Both options are tested with a team member playing the part of an HR administrator and ATS user, with the new system ultimately determined to be the more salient choice.

The hiring agency then monitors and refines this system to reduce wait times and ensure that candidates are more likely to choose one of its own clients as an employer. 

Bricks-and-mortar retail

In the final example, a retailer wants to open a new fashion store but is unsure of which product lines are best suited to its customers.

Using the PDCA cycle, the retailer decides to introduce three new products every month.

At the end of this month, they assesses sales data to determine which products sold best. This process is repeated for six months with the best performing lines incorporated into store-only promotions. 

Sales, customer preferences, and any other added benefits are quantified every month to ensure introduced products continue to be successful.

In the “Act” stage of the PDCA cycle, the retailer decides which product lines it will sell permanently and enters into talks with suppliers to establish an ongoing relationship.

Key takeaways

  • The PDCA cycle is an iterative, four-step problem-solving and continuous improvement methodology developed by Walter A. Shewhart in the 1920s. It was later refined by the father of modern quality control, W. Edwards Deming.
  • The PDCA cycle is an acronym of four distinct stages: plan, do, check, and act. Collectively, the four stages form a cyclical process where initiatives are planned, tested, evaluated, and refined if necessary.
  • The PDCA cycle is a versatile process useful in any scenario requiring change or improvement. However, it is an exhaustive process and requires a display of commitment from upper management. In some cases, it may also be reactive and discourage out-of-the-box thinking.

Connected Agile Frameworks


AIOps is the application of artificial intelligence to IT operations. It has become particularly useful for modern IT management in hybridized, distributed, and dynamic environments. AIOps has become a key operational component of modern digital-based organizations, built around software and algorithms.


AgileSHIFT is a framework that prepares individuals for transformational change by creating a culture of agility.

Agile Methodology

Agile started as a lightweight development method compared to heavyweight software development, which is the core paradigm of the previous decades of software development. By 2001 the Manifesto for Agile Software Development was born as a set of principles that defined the new paradigm for software development as a continuous iteration. This would also influence the way of doing business.

Agile Program Management

Agile Program Management is a means of managing, planning, and coordinating interrelated work in such a way that value delivery is emphasized for all key stakeholders. Agile Program Management (AgilePgM) is a disciplined yet flexible agile approach to managing transformational change within an organization.

Agile Project Management

Agile project management (APM) is a strategy that breaks large projects into smaller, more manageable tasks. In the APM methodology, each project is completed in small sections – often referred to as iterations. Each iteration is completed according to its project life cycle, beginning with the initial design and progressing to testing and then quality assurance.

Agile Modeling

Agile Modeling (AM) is a methodology for modeling and documenting software-based systems. Agile Modeling is critical to the rapid and continuous delivery of software. It is a collection of values, principles, and practices that guide effective, lightweight software modeling.

Agile Business Analysis

Agile Business Analysis (AgileBA) is certification in the form of guidance and training for business analysts seeking to work in agile environments. To support this shift, AgileBA also helps the business analyst relate Agile projects to a wider organizational mission or strategy. To ensure that analysts have the necessary skills and expertise, AgileBA certification was developed.

Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles by a manager or management team. Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 

Bimodal Portfolio Management

Bimodal Portfolio Management (BimodalPfM) helps an organization manage both agile and traditional portfolios concurrently. Bimodal Portfolio Management – sometimes referred to as bimodal development – was coined by research and advisory company Gartner. The firm argued that many agile organizations still needed to run some aspects of their operations using traditional delivery models.

Business Innovation Matrix

Business innovation is about creating new opportunities for an organization to reinvent its core offerings, revenue streams, and enhance the value proposition for existing or new customers, thus renewing its whole business model. Business innovation springs by understanding the structure of the market, thus adapting or anticipating those changes.

Business Model Innovation

Business model innovation is about increasing the success of an organization with existing products and technologies by crafting a compelling value proposition able to propel a new business model to scale up customers and create a lasting competitive advantage. And it all starts by mastering the key customers.

Constructive Disruption

A consumer brand company like Procter & Gamble (P&G) defines “Constructive Disruption” as: a willingness to change, adapt, and create new trends and technologies that will shape our industry for the future. According to P&G, it moves around four pillars: lean innovation, brand building, supply chain, and digitalization & data analytics.

Continuous Innovation

That is a process that requires a continuous feedback loop to develop a valuable product and build a viable business model. Continuous innovation is a mindset where products and services are designed and delivered to tune them around the customers’ problem and not the technical solution of its founders.

Design Sprint

A design sprint is a proven five-day process where critical business questions are answered through speedy design and prototyping, focusing on the end-user. A design sprint starts with a weekly challenge that should finish with a prototype, test at the end, and therefore a lesson learned to be iterated.

Design Thinking

Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, defined design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Therefore, desirability, feasibility, and viability are balanced to solve critical problems.


DevOps refers to a series of practices performed to perform automated software development processes. It is a conjugation of the term “development” and “operations” to emphasize how functions integrate across IT teams. DevOps strategies promote seamless building, testing, and deployment of products. It aims to bridge a gap between development and operations teams to streamline the development altogether.

Dual Track Agile

Product discovery is a critical part of agile methodologies, as its aim is to ensure that products customers love are built. Product discovery involves learning through a raft of methods, including design thinking, lean start-up, and A/B testing to name a few. Dual Track Agile is an agile methodology containing two separate tracks: the “discovery” track and the “delivery” track.

Feature-Driven Development

Feature-Driven Development is a pragmatic software process that is client and architecture-centric. Feature-Driven Development (FDD) is an agile software development model that organizes workflow according to which features need to be developed next.

eXtreme Programming

eXtreme Programming was developed in the late 1990s by Ken Beck, Ron Jeffries, and Ward Cunningham. During this time, the trio was working on the Chrysler Comprehensive Compensation System (C3) to help manage the company payroll system. eXtreme Programming (XP) is a software development methodology. It is designed to improve software quality and the ability of software to adapt to changing customer needs.

ICE Scoring

The ICE Scoring Model is an agile methodology that prioritizes features using data according to three components: impact, confidence, and ease of implementation. The ICE Scoring Model was initially created by author and growth expert Sean Ellis to help companies expand. Today, the model is broadly used to prioritize projects, features, initiatives, and rollouts. It is ideally suited for early-stage product development where there is a continuous flow of ideas and momentum must be maintained.

Innovation Funnel

An innovation funnel is a tool or process ensuring only the best ideas are executed. In a metaphorical sense, the funnel screens innovative ideas for viability so that only the best products, processes, or business models are launched to the market. An innovation funnel provides a framework for the screening and testing of innovative ideas for viability.

Innovation Matrix

According to how well defined is the problem and how well defined the domain, we have four main types of innovations: basic research (problem and domain or not well defined); breakthrough innovation (domain is not well defined, the problem is well defined); sustaining innovation (both problem and domain are well defined); and disruptive innovation (domain is well defined, the problem is not well defined).

Innovation Theory

The innovation loop is a methodology/framework derived from the Bell Labs, which produced innovation at scale throughout the 20th century. They learned how to leverage a hybrid innovation management model based on science, invention, engineering, and manufacturing at scale. By leveraging individual genius, creativity, and small/large groups.

Lean vs. Agile

The Agile methodology has been primarily thought of for software development (and other business disciplines have also adopted it). Lean thinking is a process improvement technique where teams prioritize the value streams to improve it continuously. Both methodologies look at the customer as the key driver to improvement and waste reduction. Both methodologies look at improvement as something continuous.

Lean Startup

A startup company is a high-tech business that tries to build a scalable business model in tech-driven industries. A startup company usually follows a lean methodology, where continuous innovation, driven by built-in viral loops is the rule. Thus, driving growth and building network effects as a consequence of this strategy.


Kanban is a lean manufacturing framework first developed by Toyota in the late 1940s. The Kanban framework is a means of visualizing work as it moves through identifying potential bottlenecks. It does that through a process called just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing to optimize engineering processes, speed up manufacturing products, and improve the go-to-market strategy.

Rapid Application Development

RAD was first introduced by author and consultant James Martin in 1991. Martin recognized and then took advantage of the endless malleability of software in designing development models. Rapid Application Development (RAD) is a methodology focusing on delivering rapidly through continuous feedback and frequent iterations.

Scaled Agile

Scaled Agile Lean Development (ScALeD) helps businesses discover a balanced approach to agile transition and scaling questions. The ScALed approach helps businesses successfully respond to change. Inspired by a combination of lean and agile values, ScALed is practitioner-based and can be completed through various agile frameworks and practices.

Spotify Model

The Spotify Model is an autonomous approach to scaling agile, focusing on culture communication, accountability, and quality. The Spotify model was first recognized in 2012 after Henrik Kniberg, and Anders Ivarsson released a white paper detailing how streaming company Spotify approached agility. Therefore, the Spotify model represents an evolution of agile.

Test-Driven Development

As the name suggests, TDD is a test-driven technique for delivering high-quality software rapidly and sustainably. It is an iterative approach based on the idea that a failing test should be written before any code for a feature or function is written. Test-Driven Development (TDD) is an approach to software development that relies on very short development cycles.


Timeboxing is a simple yet powerful time-management technique for improving productivity. Timeboxing describes the process of proactively scheduling a block of time to spend on a task in the future. It was first described by author James Martin in a book about agile software development.


Scrum is a methodology co-created by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland for effective team collaboration on complex products. Scrum was primarily thought for software development projects to deliver new software capability every 2-4 weeks. It is a sub-group of agile also used in project management to improve startups’ productivity.


Scrumban is a project management framework that is a hybrid of two popular agile methodologies: Scrum and Kanban. Scrumban is a popular approach to helping businesses focus on the right strategic tasks while simultaneously strengthening their processes.

Scrum Anti-Patterns

Scrum anti-patterns describe any attractive, easy-to-implement solution that ultimately makes a problem worse. Therefore, these are the practice not to follow to prevent issues from emerging. Some classic examples of scrum anti-patterns comprise absent product owners, pre-assigned tickets (making individuals work in isolation), and discounting retrospectives (where review meetings are not useful to really make improvements).

Scrum At Scale

Scrum at Scale (Scrum@Scale) is a framework that Scrum teams use to address complex problems and deliver high-value products. Scrum at Scale was created through a joint venture between the Scrum Alliance and Scrum Inc. The joint venture was overseen by Jeff Sutherland, a co-creator of Scrum and one of the principal authors of the Agile Manifesto.

Stretch Objectives

Stretch objectives describe any task an agile team plans to complete without expressly committing to do so. Teams incorporate stretch objectives during a Sprint or Program Increment (PI) as part of Scaled Agile. They are used when the agile team is unsure of its capacity to attain an objective. Therefore, stretch objectives are instead outcomes that, while extremely desirable, are not the difference between the success or failure of each sprint.


The waterfall model was first described by Herbert D. Benington in 1956 during a presentation about the software used in radar imaging during the Cold War. Since there were no knowledge-based, creative software development strategies at the time, the waterfall method became standard practice. The waterfall model is a linear and sequential project management framework. 

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