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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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.

PDCA Cycle’s Related Frameworks

Value Stream Mapping

Value stream mapping uses flowcharts to analyze and then improve on the delivery of products and services. Value stream mapping (VSM) is based on the concept of value streams – which are a series of sequential steps that explain how a product or service is delivered to consumers.

Five Whys

The 5 Whys method is an interrogative problem-solving technique that seeks to understand cause-and-effect relationships. At its core, the technique is used to identify the root cause of a problem by asking the question of why five times. This might unlock new ways to think about a problem and therefore devise a creative solution to solve it.


Andy Grove, helped Intel become among the most valuable companies by 1997. In his years at Intel, he conceived a management and goal-setting system, called OKR, standing for “objectives and key results.” Venture capitalist and early investor in Google, John Doerr, systematized in the book “Measure What Matters.”

SWOT Analysis

A SWOT Analysis is a framework used for evaluating the business’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It can aid in identifying the problematic areas of your business so that you can maximize your opportunities. It will also alert you to the challenges your organization might face in the future.

PEST Analysis

The PESTEL analysis is a framework that can help marketers assess whether macro-economic factors are affecting an organization. This is a critical step that helps organizations identify potential threats and weaknesses that can be used in other frameworks such as SWOT or to gain a broader and better understanding of the overall marketing environment.

Porter’s Five Forces

Porter’s Five Forces is a model that helps organizations to gain a better understanding of their industries and competition. Published for the first time by Professor Michael Porter in his book “Competitive Strategy” in the 1980s. The model breaks down industries and markets by analyzing them through five forces

Balanced Scorecard

First proposed by accounting academic Robert Kaplan, the balanced scorecard is a management system that allows an organization to focus on big-picture strategic goals. The four perspectives of the balanced scorecard include financial, customer, business process, and organizational capacity. From there, according to the balanced scorecard, it’s possible to have a holistic view of the business.

Steep Analysis

The STEEP analysis is a tool used to map the external factors that impact an organization. STEEP stands for the five key areas on which the analysis focuses: socio-cultural, technological, economic, environmental/ecological, and political. Usually, the STEEP analysis is complementary or alternative to other methods such as SWOT or PESTEL analyses.

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