PDCA is a simple, iterative management approach for testing changes to processes or solutions to problems, and driving continuous improvement to them over time. As with many process and quality control approaches used by various industries today, it originated from manufacturing practices in the 20th century. The simplicity and readily reproducible success of PDCA led to it being used by many industries outside manufacturing, whether by individuals, teams, or entire organizations.
PDCA was derived from W. Edwards Deming’s “Shewhart Cycle,” named after Walter Shewhart, a statistician often referred to as the father of modern quality control. Deming, an American engineer and professor, was best known for his work in Japan, where his ideas helped influence the country’s post-war industrial processes and recovery. In fact, the name PDCA was coined by participants of his lectures, who streamlined the Shewhart Cycle to “Plan, Do, Check, Act.” Deming actually preferred “Study” to “Check,” making it the Plan-Do-Study-Act or PDSA cycle, as the word placed more emphasis on analyzing results rather than simply checking what had changed.
Nevertheless, the approach today is best-known as the PDCA cycle, as it is designed to be completed and repeated numerous times. The design and logic can be seen in other manufacturing-based quality management approaches of the time, such as Lean Manufacturing, Kaizen, and Six Sigma.
The PDCA cycle involves 4 steps: Plan, Do, Check, Act. The process is performed in a linear fashion, with the completion of a cycle tying into the beginning of the next cycle.
Teams and practitioners of PDCA will typically work out what tools work best for themselves in each phase. However, whether you’re brainstorming in the Plan phase, or collating your data at the Check stage, Dropbox Paper can help you manage every part of the process. Shared project planning documents can help you outline your process, while collaboration tools can keep your team involved and on track as you iterate with PDCA. And of course, all of your documents are files are easily shareable through Dropbox storage.
At its core, PDCA provides a standardized approach and guiding philosophy for team members and employees to resolve issues and continuously improve their work. However, this could be said of many management and quality control approaches, all with varying levels of complexity and numbers of success stories. What makes PDCA special compared to the rest?
The main reason is that PDCA or Plan, Do, Check, Act is a simple, straightforward and intuitive process for people to grasp and implement into their work. This has made it not only enduring in the world of work, but also pervasive across industries, and in people’s minds. While it still requires a degree of buy-in from your colleagues to make it work in teams, PDCA’s simplicity makes it easy to bake into your organizational culture and overall processes.
Due to its cyclical and iterative nature, PDCA also helps you to iron out mistakes and prevent them from occurring in the future. The cycle is designed to help you identify errors and their root causes as you repeatedly optimize a process. As you continue to test different solutions and successfully implement them, you’ll also build up data and experience in understanding the process. At this point, PDCA becomes more than problem-solving approach, as it can add valuable information that’s relevant to different processes in your team or organization.
PDCA is a highly adaptable strategy. Some may prescribe certain documents or steps be completed during the Plan phase to ensure that they are ready to proceed with the rest of the cycle. However, what needs to be defined or planned is ultimately up to you and your team, providing it can sustain the rest of the process. This adaptability in turn makes PDCA scalable, as it can be adapted to any situation and for teams of any size—even down to a team of one.
While some problem-solving and management approaches can be time and resource-intensive to apply, PDCA’s adaptability means it is rarely non-applicable. If you are looking to make consistent improvement to your own work processes or those of your team, then PDCA is a good option.However, PDCA’s methodical, incrementalist approach means that change comes gradually. As such, it may not be as suitable if your organization is dealing with an urgent issue with process or an emergency. Equally, if you are looking to see fast turnarounds in performance and results, PDCA may not give what you’re looking for. PDCA’s strength is in its ability to continually identify problems, then refine and find optimal methods—it is unlikely to completely solve an issue or turn around performance after a singular iteration.
At its core, PDCA is a philosophy for approaching situations. First, you identify the situation and set goals, then you test different approaches for reaching those goals, review their success and adjust your behavior accordingly, before finally moving forward with what has worked. If it’s not realistic for your team or organization to integrate PDCA directly, it still offers guiding principle to help you understand and approach any situation you come across in the workplace and beyond.
While being so simple, PDCA is still a process that requires rigor and mastery in order to truly benefit from it. However, adopting it—and then sticking to it—can really change the way you and your team work, with measurable results you can see as time and iterations go by. Promoting PDCA within your teams and organization—with successful uptake—can help move all your colleagues toward a mindset for problem-solving and critical thinking.