Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (PDCA) is an approach for continuous improvement with roots in Toyota Production System and Lean. It is core to teams in learning organizations and teams working in VUCA environments.
Others will know PDCA as the scientific method of: planning guesses, running experiments then reflecting on the results in order to make adjustments and attempt the experiment again. The learnings are then integrated into the way the teams and organization operate so that the system is improved.
In this article, the unit of analysis will be of teams in a wider organizational context.
The following are some examples where a PDCA approach can be used:
- Developing a new product or service
- Instituting a change in an organization
- Refining a Standard Operating Procedure
- Refining a proven process into a more efficient process.
- Navigating uncertainty in markets or geopolitical landscapes.
- Any problem solving opportunity that requires a learning based approach
Plan: The team identifies a potential valuable opportunity. They scope what is needed to realize some (or all) of that value. Boundary conditions are identified at the best knowledge of the team as to what is valuable or what is not valuable.
Do: The team executes on the plan. They continue until a defined boundary condition is met which can include but not limited to time, task completion, and/or goals achieved.
Check: The team stops and inspects the work against the defined conditions of success. In some cases monitoring can be performed during execution.
Adjust: Assumptions are updated based on the results of the check. Changes to the plan are recommended. Measures are updated or new measures identified. Goals are adjusted if such adjustments better serve the opportunity. The entire change may be cancelled at this point if the work done so far diverges greatly from original assumptions.
A Thought Experiment
At this point in explaining the PDCA cycle, the Pointy Haired Boss (PHB) walks in and asserts, “Anything I Don’t Understand Must Be Easy” and in a stroke of pure efficiency, he removes 2 adjacent steps from your PDCA plan.
Here are some patterns of delivery teams that indicate the PHB may have been walking your organization’s hallways in the quest to do Twice the Work with Half the Budget.
How would such teams look after a period of time?
Romancing the Flow (Plan – Do)
Team switches between short-term tactical planning and doing. Long term improvements or strategic planning are not practiced by the team. This leads to fast bouts of trial and error which can provide local optimizations. Teams that stay in a Plan-Do loop risk becoming fixed on how they get the work done and may ignore marketplace trends that are signalling a change in direction. They become romantic on how they get stuff done and resist changing as their “efficiency” has been optimized over the many repetitions they have gone through.
What can we learn from this team performing Plan-Do well:
- Look at how the team manages the multiple priorities, they may have tips and tricks on determining what to shift tasks.
- See how they develop their plan, especially when working in volatile and uncertain situations.
- Learn how the team optimizes for their local efficiencies.
Potential Improvements for teams stuck in a Plan-Do loop:
- Take the time to pause and assess the strategic direction
- Collaboration with other departments to forecast upcoming trends.
- Ensure team members are building strong relationships with each other and not being overwhelmed by the task grind.
- Check-in with customers to ensure their evolving needs are being met and help merge that into the team’s plan.
- Provide support with institutionalizing global change efforts as the team may have a very structured approach to their work.
This team prioritizes a process of checking execution errors and providing correction in the moment, or organizing retrospective processes. This team struggles with adopting core learnings that may emerge as a pattern as a result of the error checking. Retrospectives can be well run and find the concerns, however followup is not evident. Plans rarely change as new information is discovered from retrospective followup.
What can we learn from a team doing Do-Check well:
- Evolved ways of measuring for error correction.
- Having a good eye for quality this team can help others evolve error monitoring practices.
- Fresh perspectives on retrospective approaches.
- Open team culture of sharing
Potential improvements for teams stuck in a Do-Check loop:
- Look for symptoms where the team is locked into a specific process and cannot execute on the learnings from their retrospective.
- Retrospective meetings may not be calling out clear improvement actions.
- Develop relationships with managers or stakeholders that can help shift organizational learning priorities.
- Educate on how to develop plans over short and long term horizons.
- Develop working agreements on how to integrate new information into existing processes.
- Investigate incentives that may be in place that de-incentivize changing priorities.
- Educate the organization on the importance of following up on assigned retrospective or post-mortem action items.
This team excels in building theories, debating the theories, adjusting the theories only to debate them some more. Such debate may give rise to different ways of thinking. However, members of the team risk being stuck in an almost infinite loop of debate on topics.
What can we learn from a team doing Check – Adjust well:
- Excellent critical thinking skills that can come up with innovating ways of solving problems.
- Consult this team when there is a need for multiple option paths. Do come back after “sleeping on the problem” for a night or two as the team may have evolved some novel options.
- Talk to them about their innovative ways they conduct meetings
- Partner up with this team to institute change, they are very passionate when a theory they hold can be leveraged for an organizational improvement.
Potential improvements for teams stuck in Check – Adjust:
- Look for cases where the team may lack support to take a chance.
- Add someone with a “get stuff done” mentality to the team who can structure the theories into execution plans.
- Find ways to connect the thought leadership of this team to goals at hand.
- Partner with a delivery team or embed
- Have a facilitator help keep the team on track during meetings and limit exploring endless what-if possibilities when convergence on a point solution is needed for execution.
- Stay out of the past and focus on future-forward efforts. This team will tend to reopen conversations on things that happened in the past, long after improvement efforts have been implemented.
Just downstairs from the ivory tower is the team that moves a glacial speed. This team spends days if not weeks crafting an elaborate plan then running thought experiments on it. The results come in and the plan is adjusted then put up against another round of thought experiments. The cycle repeats.
What can we learn from a team doing Adjust – Plan well:
- Adept at institutionalizing change into plans
- Skilled at creating structure around improvements.
- Can provide multiple paths on how to move forward with change.
Potential improvements for teams stuck in Adjust – Plan:
- Consult with customers on what is important so priority plans can be ranked and measured.
- Technical know-how may be lacking, ensure the team has the skill sets for implementing the changes they have devised.
- Plans may be overly complicated, look for ways to simplify.
- Pause conversations where new adjustments are being added to an already adjusted plan and ask that some execution steps are taken before replanning.
The key takeaway here is to observe how your team is cycling through the full Plan-Do-Check-Adjust loop. Look for areas where they excel which can be used to support other teams in the organization. At the same time look for areas where your team can improve on a PDCA step by engaging with a team showing high aptitude in an area.
If you have been on a team with missing PDCA steps, please share your story in the comments. We can all learn from each other.