PDCA cycle for continuous improvement explained – The iterative planning and management method
Harnessing the power of the PDCA cycle for continuous improvement in all sectors and areas
Understand the PDCA cycle’s role in continuous improvement, its applications across industries, and its potential to transform organizational culture, processes, services and products.
Nothing is more important to the modern business world than the ability to adapt, innovate and continuously improve operations. We are seeing incredible speeds at which entire markets are changing and industries are being transformed by technological change. But what is often misunderstood is what “improvement” is all about. It is not only about solving immediate problems, but also about creating an environment that is conducive to learning, growth and innovation. To achieve this, companies rely heavily on strategic tools and methods that enable them to manage, monitor and measure these improvements. A well-known management tool for continuous improvement is the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, which has also become known in abbreviated form as the PDCA cycle.
The PDCA cycle – Meaning and overview
The PDCA cycle stands for: Plan, Do, Check and Act. The PDCA cycle is a systematic sequence of steps used to continuously improve processes, services and products. It also became better known as it became an integral part of lean management.
Each phase includes specific tasks that drive the improvement process. Plan’ is about identifying a problem and developing a hypothesis for its solution. Do” puts the plan into action on a small scale. Check” monitors the results and compares them to the expected outcomes. In the final step, “Act”, the process is refined based on the results or, if unsuccessful, returned to the planning phase.
One of the most compelling aspects of the PDCA cycle is its versatility through its simplicity. It has applications in many industries and subjects – from manufacturing to healthcare to education and more. Anything, in any field, that requires iterative, step-by-step improvement can benefit from the systematic approach or mindset of the PDCA cycle.
Brief history of the PDCA Cycle
The PDCA cycle was originally developed during the 1920s by physicist Walter A. Shewhart. Later in the 1950s, the quality assurance expert Dr. W. Edwards Deming adopted the PDCA cycle (also called the “Shewhart Cycle” by him) and it became a fundamental tool in the field of quality management of production processes during World War II. Later Deming even changed the Cycle to “Plan, Do, Study, Act” as he felt that “Check” rather referres to an “inspection” rather than the study, analysis and understanding.
PDCA cycle steps explained
1. Plan: the foundation of improvement
Usually the cycle begins in the “Plan” phase. This phase is about identifying a problem or a goal. The success of the PDCA cycle depends on identifying exactly what needs to be improved. This may be an inefficient process, a quality problem or a new goal that the organisation wants to achieve.
Once the goal or problem is identified, the next step is to understand the current situation and develop a plan to solve the problem. This includes setting success criteria – what does a successful outcome look like? Setting measurable goals is key to this process.
Companies often use strategic tools at this stage to support the planning process. For example, a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) can help to better understand the context. Similarly, setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) objectives can ensure that the plan is specific, achievable and time-bound.
2 Do: From planning to action
After the “plan” phase, we enter the “do” phase of the PDCA cycle. Here the focus shifts from theoretical planning to practical implementation. Often projects are first executed on a small scale, e.g. in a pilot project or trial run. By testing the plan in a controlled environment, companies can observe the initial impact without the risk of widespread disruption.
As mentioned, while implementation is also observed, a crucial aspect in the “do” phase is effective communication. It is important that all stakeholders understand the plan, their role in it and the desired outcome. This ensures that the plan is executed accurately and effectively. Equally important is the role of leadership. Effective leaders not only provide direction, but also inspire their teams to embrace the change process and contribute to improvement, as negative aspects in this area can lead to distorted results.
Please note: While the “Do” phase is about action, it is also a learning phase. The observations and data collected in this phase feed directly into the next phase: “Check”.
3. Check: Evaluation of progress and results
The third phase of the standard PDCA cycle is “Check”. In this phase, the results of the actions carried out in the “Do” phase are analysed and compared with the expected results from the “Plan” phase.
At this point, feedback is sought and a review is conducted to identify deviations from the expected results. This is also a good time to involve team members and stakeholders in reviewing the process and results to learn from mistakes and celebrate successes.
Important: The focus here is on LEARNING from the results, not on assessment or criticism.
Data plays a central role in this phase. The use of key performance indicators, KPIs and data analysis tools can help to objectively assess the results. Whether it is statistical analysis, a simple before and after comparison or advanced data analysis, the goal is to gain a clear understanding of the results.
The insights and learning from the “Check” phase then lead into the final phase of the PDCA cycle: “Act”.
4. Act: Refinement and Standardisation
The final phase of the PDCA cycle, “Act”, is where things really get down to business. Based on the findings from the “Check” phase, the process is refined in this phase based on the results. If the plan was successful, the process is standardised and implemented on a larger scale. If the results were not satisfactory, it goes back to the “Plan” phase to re-evaluate the process and develop a new strategy.
The “Act” phase also shows why the PDCA cycle is built on flexibility, because it is important to emphasise again that PDCA is an iterative process. The “Act” phase is usually not the end, but rather a new beginning that leads to further cycles. The point is to learn from each iteration and to continuously improve the process, and the faster and more efficiently the iterations are carried out.
PDCA use cases across all sectors
As mentioned above, the simplicity of the concept is the reason why it has so many uses. Regardless of the industry or the type of process, service or product, the PDCA cycle can be used to effectively initiate and manage improvements. Here are just a few examples to illustrate this
- Manufacturing industry: Originally used by Deming the PDCA cycle helped to improve product quality and reduce waste during World War 2. Manufacturing companies continue to use the PDCA cycle frequently today to refine production processes, improve safety standards and increase efficiency, resulting in significant cost savings and better products.
- Healthcare: In the healthcare system, the PDCA cycle helps improve patient care and outcomes. It is used to identify potential areas for improvement, whether it is a process such as patient admission or a broader issue such as infection control. The iterative nature of the PDCA cycle allows healthcare providers to continually update and improve their processes to respond to changing patient needs and medical advances.
- Education: Even in education, the PDCA cycle has proven its worth. Schools and universities use it in various situations to improve their teaching methods, optimise curricula and increase student achievement. With the PDCA cycle, educators can create a structured framework to test new teaching strategies, evaluate their effectiveness and refine them based on feedback.
PDCA and organisational culture
I have often mentioned that the PDCA cycle also depends on how well managers deal with it and that the organisational culture can have an influence on the results. But the PDCA cycle can also have an impact on organisational culture the other way round.
In organisations where the PDCA cycle is firmly established, employees are often more engaged and take an active role in identifying problems and developing solutions, as critical thinking and continuous improvement are a ‘standard’. Employees are encouraged to experiment, take calculated risks and learn from their mistakes in an environment where there is no blame. This approach boosts morale, increases productivity and cultivates a culture of creativity and innovation.
Leadership plays a central role in promoting and implementing the PDCA cycle in an organisation. They are responsible for creating an environment conducive to PDCA principles, fostering open communication, providing resources, promoting inter access to knowledge and results, and recognising efforts and achievements related to continuous improvement.
Because, as is often the case, it is about: people. It is about a change in mindset from “business as usual” to striving for continuous improvement. By effectively using the PDCA cycle, companies can not only improve their operations, but also drive innovation, promote employee satisfaction, become more efficient and provide better solutions for customers.
Overcoming challenges in PDCA implementation
As effective and simple as the PDCA cycle may seem, it is not without its challenges. The process requires a specific mindset, patience, often perseverance and of course the willingness to learn from mistakes and admit mistakes. Especially when introducing such management models, organisations often encounter obstacles such as resistance to change, lack of understanding of the PDCA process, trivialisation, inadequate data collection and analysis, cover-up of errors, lack of documentation and also incorrect execution.
It is common for the PDCA process to be executed incorrectly. This is because the temptation to skip phases or rush through the cycle is great and also incorrect measurements or assumptions can distort the results. This can lead to inadequate planning, ineffective action or insufficient control, which can undermine the improvement process or render it completely pointless. It is important to remember that the PDCA cycle is a systematic process in which each phase builds on the previous one and thus even the PDCA cycle must always be improved internally.
It may not always be easy for many managers, but the rewards of continuous improvement – higher efficiency, better product quality, higher customer satisfaction and a more engaged and innovative workforce – are worth the effort to constantly engage in experimentation and improvement.
Whether a start-up or a global corporation, the PDCA cycle is the foundation for continuous improvement in the dynamic (and digital) business environment. Understanding the 4 steps and phases is less important than building a mindset around “experimenting”, “testing” and “rethinking”.
The PDCA cycle more than a management tool – it is a philosophy that promotes a culture of continuous learning and improvement. It encourages us to plan carefully, act decisively, review thoroughly and always be ready to learn and adapt.
However, it is important to recognise that implementing the PDCA cycle is not without its challenges. It requires patience, perseverance, the right leadership and organisational culture, and a real commitment to continuous improvement.
Continuous improvement can quickly become a strategic advantage. Whether you’re in manufacturing, healthcare, education or any other industry, applying the PDCA cycle can help streamline processes, improve products and services and foster a culture of continuous improvement. So remember: constantly plan experiments, implement them, check results and act on the findings – because the journey to improvement never really ends.