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 and disadvantages of the PDCA cycle
- Versatility – 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.
- Intuitiveness – 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.
- 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.
- Exhaustive – 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.
- Reactive – 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
PDCA Cycle’s Related Frameworks
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