Need to improve? You need PDCA

The name of the blog is theleansubmariner.

While much of my writing is based on submarines and their history, every once in a while, I fall back on my other passion which is the “lean” part of the title.

Lean is a process that leads to the elimination of waste (among other outcomes), but it has continuous improvement at its core. One of the fundamental tools used is PDCA. So just for the fun of it, here is my definition of what PDCA is and can do for you.

Defining PDCA

Getting things done can be accidental, extemporaneous or planned. In too many cases, the first two are the driving factors.

The need to solve an issue or correct a perceived problem is often driven out of necessity. Whether it’s an obstacle to achieving other goals or just an annoyance, solving ends up taking all of your energy and focus.

But how do you solve things? If your process is random and falls into the accidental or extemporaneous category, chances are you will stumble about trying to get from point A to point B. The reasons are obvious, but we often fail to think about them in any depth.

First, you can’t get to a destination of you don’t know where you are going. There are three models that are useful and each have their benefits.

  1. Plan, Do, Check, Adjust (Act)
  2. Plan, Do, Study, Act
  3. Observe, Plan, Do, Check, Adjust

The first one is often called the Deming Wheel, named after W. Edwards Deming. The purpose for this scientific method was to give the users a clear path towards not only fixing something but continually improving it.

The first activity is Plan.

During Plan, you establish objectives and processes required to deliver the desired results.

  • Clearly define the problem and establish a precise problem statement
  • Contain the problem to limit its effects until permanent corrective actions are available
  • Set a measurable goal for the problem solving effort
  • Analyze the situation and identify the root cause
    • Collect and analyze data related to the problem
    • If possible visualize the problem, for example by listing the steps and mapping the problem process
    • Identify the root cause of the problem
    • Collect additional data if needed and consult with relevant functions/persons to verify the root cause
  • Generate potential solutions that will address the root cause of the problem
  • Select a solution and plan its implementation
  • Coordinate with affected functions/persons and gain approval from leadership

Big Point: Too many times, people spend too much time in Plan… instead of Plan Do Check Act, its Plan Plan Plan Plan. Another name for this is analysis paralysis. Nothing of substance ever gets done.

The second part is Do.

This is where you carry out the objectives from the previous step.

Implement the chosen solution in accordance with the plan. Preferably on a trial or pilot basis to minimize disruption to routine activity while testing whether the changes will work or not

  • Update the action plan throughout the implementation work
  • Mark completed activities
  • Revise the plan if needed

Document the procedures, results and observations

In this model, the next step is Check

During the check phase, the data and results gathered from the do phase are evaluated. Data is compared to the expected outcomes to see many similarities and differences. The testing process is also evaluated to see if there were any changes from the original test created during the planning phase. If the data is placed in a chart it can make it easier to see any trends if the PDCA cycle is conducted multiple times. This helps to see what changes work better than others and if said changes can be improved as well.

  • Gather data on the impact of the solution
  • Analyze the impact of the solution
  • Compare obtained results with expected/desired results

Finally, Act

Also called “Adjust”, this act phase is where a process is improved. Records from the “do” and “check” phases help identify issues with the process. These issues may include problems, non-conformities, opportunities for improvement, inefficiencies, and other issues that result in outcomes that are evidently less-than-optimal. Root causes of such issues are investigated, found, and eliminated by modifying the process. Risk is re-evaluated. At the end of the actions in this phase, the process has better instructions, standards, or goals. Planning for the next cycle can proceed with a better baseline. Work in the next do phase should not create a recurrence of the identified issues; if it does, then the action was not effective.

If results from “Check” are satisfactory

  • Identify systemic changes and training needs for full implementation
  • Update standards and work instructions
  • Inform and train affected personnel
  • Follow the new standard and, if applicable, secure ongoing measurement of the results
  • Continue to look for incremental improvements to refine the solution
  • Spread the solution if relevant to other areas of the company

If results from “Check” are not satisfactory

  • Restart PDCA cycle
  • Utilize the knowledge gained from the previous steps
  • Adjust team composition if required to add additional competence
  • Never give up!

The important thing about the cycle is that it needs to be repeated in a never ending cycle of improvement. In order for real change and improvement to occur, we need to recognize that there is almost always a next higher goal to achieve. The improvement made will often reveal that there are more opportunities that were not as visible in the first go round.


Deming later modified his PDCA model to include study versus checking. He felt that the Check activity was too focused on inspection over analysis. Truthfully, a well-coordinated check activity should include a careful analysis so I don’t find them mutually exclusive.


In this model, a specific step called observation is emphasized. This was a conscious effort on the part of the originators to force a more comprehensive observation phase in the model. In the original PDCA model, a good practice would be to include enough observation to gather the statistics and data which form the basis for the plan. I’m sure there must be times when an additional amount of focus is needed, but if the people planning use the right tools as outlined below, enough observation will naturally occur.

When to use it?

A full blown PDCA is typically used for larger projects. Going through the steps and accurately using the tools can be resource constrained. Time, people, pressure from other initiatives, and not having sponsorship can all restrict how and when it is used.

But I have found that it can be used in smaller endeavors. If you are struggling with routine activities and can’t seem to get grounded, this is a good model to force yourself to have some discipline. You don’t need to surround yourself with charts and spread sheets to gain focus. Just apply the parts of the four steps that make sense for the situation.

Plan in such a way that clear objectives are outlined using the SMART method.

Specific – A goal needs to be exact, distinct and clearly stated.  Vague generalities are not goals they are pipe dreams.  The brain needs to focus on a specific target.

This is the first step towards writing a smart goal, and there are five questions that you need to ask yourself while designing a specific goal:

  • Who will be involved?
  • What is going to be accomplished?
  • What will this goal achieve?
  • When will the goal be achieved?
  • Why do you want to achieve this goal?

If you can successfully answer all the these questions without any doubt, then you have a specific smart goal in mind.

Measurable – How do you know when the goal is completed?  When specifying the goal you should state how you are going to measure its completion.

Just like the first step, you not only need your smart goal to be specific, but measurable as well. For that, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many or how much is this goal going to achieve?
  • Is there any way I can measure my success/failure on my way towards my goal?
  • How will I come to know whether I have achieved my goal or not?

It is important to quantify your progress and know the numbers. While figuring out your goals is a smart thing indeed, knowing the path towards achieving them is better. That is only possible if you have the answers to the aforementioned questions. You have to quantify your goals and measure your progress periodically.

Achievable – Setting a realistic goal is fundamental.  It must be attainable. Only you truly know your strengths and weaknesses.  Consider any similar situation in the past where you accomplished your goal.

Some things to ask yourself:

  • Do you have the resources to achieve the goal?
  • If not, how can you achieve them?
  • Is it a practical recourse? Does the end outweigh the means?
  • Has this been done before?

Relevant – It needs to be relevant. You need to see whether it aligns with the vision of your organization. Starting new things and expansion is good, but it needs to be a branch of an already existing vision and not a cumbersome addition.

Ask yourselves the following questions:

  • Is your SMART goal realistic?
  • Does your goal look relevant?
  • Is it realistically achievable with the current resources and timelines?
  • Can you commit to it?

If the answer to these questions is “Yes,” then you are on the right path towards achieving your smart goal.

Time bound – To properly measure success, you (and your team) need to be on the same page about when a goal has been reached.

What’s your time horizon? When will the team begin creating and implementing the tasks they’ve identified? When will they finish?

SMART goals should have time-related parameters built in, so everybody knows how to stay on track within a designated time frame.

Write it down: 

  • You should keep a written record of the goal so there is no doubt in your mind what it is.
  • You should also have a log of how you arrived at that particular goal.
  • It will also be useful to tick off those goals achieved, to highlight difficulties and to improve on your goal specification with what you’ve learnt about yourself along the way.

Just a short note: My book is in for the second editing, and we are working on formatting and cover art. Still shooting for the next few weeks but somethings out of my control may delay that. I am working on adjusting my PDCA 

Mister Mac

This is a model of a PDCA and the corresponding tools that I have used over the years to make it all work. This is the complex model… you can just use the basic steps for smaller endeavors

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