The Four Steps of PDCA and How They Lead to Continuous Improvement
There are various methods for tackling the activities of an organization available to us nowadays, and leaders have no shortage of tools to help them get the job done. Among the various techniques available, the trend is generally leaning towards solutions that can solve problems in a timely and efficient manner, minimizing the number of steps required to reach an acceptable state.
The PDCA method is based on four steps which make up the acronym of its name. The steps are specifically plan, do, check, and act. Some variations of the method add an extra fifth step preceding all others – observe – but the traditional version is based on just the four main steps. Whether you’re going to implement the modified five-step version or go for the original is up to you, but understanding the meaning of each step is critical in implementing PDCA correctly.
- Plan – the core of the PDCA method is the ability to plan your actions correctly. You need to have a clearly defined set of targets that you’re trying to achieve, and you also have to identify the corresponding process behind achieving each of those targets. This is also the stage where you define what you expect to achieve once you’re done implementing the PDCA method. Every detail about the final status of the organization should be outlined here in as much detail as possible. You will also be clearly defining your problem, gathering data, and analyzing the root causes of your problem (or your largest sources of variation)
If you look at this graphic, you can see how much time you SHOULD be spending on the Plan phase (Note: it’s more than 50% of the total time!)
- Do – as the name implies, this is where you put the plan from step 1 into action, and fully implement all of its elements. It’s important to follow the original plan all the way, even if it turns out that there is some room for improvement. Find ways to quickly implement your solutions, so you can find out right away whether it works or not.
- Check – this is the step where you’ll actually put the data you collected in earlier steps to use. Using all the data collected in the analysis, and combining it with additional data from the plans you developed in step 1, you should be able to see emerging patterns of change or improvement. Analyzing the results of implementing the PDCA method is as critical as the correct implementation of the first two steps, as otherwise you’re not going to know if there was actually any benefit to what you did at all. Sometimes, this step is called Study, or PDSA. Either way, we need to decide what happened, and decide what we need to do next.
- Act – finally, if your results show that there is a clear improvement in the operations of the organization from the implementation of PDCA, then you have to continue doing the same thing in the future. Take what you’ve learned from your experiments with PDCA, and implement it into the standard operational routine of the organization. This should now be the norm for how things are done, unless of course the company runs into another problem in the future. In that case, you can easily run another iteration of the PDCA method and improve the situation again.
As you can see, the PDCA method is highly flexible and can lead to continuous improvement without much hassle. As long as you keep evaluating the results of your company’s work in an objective manner and keep the past data in mind, you should be on the right track.
It’s a simple method, but it’s proven to be highly effective for multiple reasons. There’s a reason why PDCA is still being applied in many organizations around the world in one form or another, and even though the core method has been modified significantly over time, the basic idea stays the same, and the four steps can still be easily identified in any modified version of the same system. With time, you’ll likely learn to identify the system in other environments as well, and you’d be surprised how often it’s employed in the world around us with great degrees of success.
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