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What Is the PDCA Cycle (Plan Do Check Act Methodology)?

Last updated: February 12, 2024

Defining the PDCA and the Deming Cycles

The PDCA cycle (Plan Do Check Act) is a methodology to develop and customize internal organizational procedures for quality, project, and problem management. The Deming cycle is the visual representation of that model. In other words, while the PDCA cycle is a systematic method for continuous process improvement, the Deming cycle is its comprehensive diagram. It comprises four iterative steps:

  • Plan (set objectives and develop a plan to meet a need)
  • Do (implement the plan)
  • Check (collect data and evaluate results)
  • Act (take corrective action and standardize processes)

The following article examines the origins, steps, iterations, and uses of the PDCA and Deming cycles.

The Origins of the PDCA and Deming Cycles

The PDCA cycle, also known as the Shewhart or Deming cycle, originated in the work of physicist Walter Shewhart in the 1920s. However, the subsequent development of the method was primarily the work of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. In the 1940s, Deming adapted Shewhart’s cycle to management.

He then exported these concepts to Japan in the 1950s, contributing to that country’s quality management breakthrough.1 The underlying philosophy of the PDCA method gained popularity through its integration with the principles of Lean manufacturing and the Toyota Production System (TPS). In the 1980s, Deming modified the cycle title, renaming it PDSA (Plan Do Study Act) to emphasize the importance of analysis rather than mere inspection.2

The 4 Steps of the PDCA Cycle (Plan Do Check Act)

Step 1: Plan

The first step in the PDCA cycle (Plan) has four sub-steps:

  • Identify problems: The aim is to track down the root causes of problems. For example, if customers complain about product quality, it’s crucial to identify the factors underlying the problem to eliminate it for good.
  • Set objectives: The organization’s overall targets should serve as a focus for short- and medium-term objectives. For example, a manufacturing company might set itself the target of reducing product defects by 20% over the next six months. However, these objectives need to be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) to see conclusive results.
  • Develop a detailed plan: Specify what needs to be accomplished, who is responsible for each task, how the implementation schedule will be phased, and what resources are required. For a construction company looking to improve efficiency on its job sites, the detailed plan could include:
    • Creating Gantt charts for each project
    • Planning crew assignments
    • Managing resources
    • Purchasing new technologies to speed up construction processes
  • Communicate the plan: The final sub-step of the planning phase is sharing this plan with the whole organization. Everyone needs to understand their role and responsibilities in executing the PDCA framework before its implementation.

Step 2: Do

The Do phase of the PDCA process is used to transform planning into concrete action with solutions to the initial problem. It is made up of five sub-phases.

  • Allocate the necessary resources: Regarding workforce, materials, equipment, or budget, this ensures that the teams involved have the right resources to meet deadlines and quality standards.
  • Train employees: Training enables staff to acquire the skills to adapt to change, effectively use new tools, and contribute to successful implementation.
  • Implement the plan: Carry out the actions or tasks described methodically. For example, when introducing a new process in the manufacturing sector, it is essential to implement the plan and rigorously follow the steps to minimize potential losses.
  • Meet deadlines: It’s imperative to meet the deadlines and milestones defined in the project plan to achieve the desired results. This discipline ensures that the project progresses according to schedule and avoids costly delays.
  • Document: Record all procedures and protocol details to meet regulatory requirements and enable in-depth performance analysis (equipment and materials used, unexpected problems, and deviations from the plan).

Step 3: Check

You should always address the Check step of the PDCA cycle. It’s essential for judging the effectiveness of actions. Gaps in organizational processes often become apparent at this stage. Unfortunately, many managers fail to return to measure progress at regular intervals. It’s crucial to include this step right from the outset of planning. Sub-steps include:

  • Collect data: Evaluate the effectiveness of the measures taken in the Do phase. For example, in a manufacturing environment, collecting data on machine performance, downtime, and product quality is essential for assessing the efficiency of operations.
  • Compare with predefined objectives: Determining whether the plan has achieved the desired results is essential. For example, in the distribution sector, comparing actual stock levels with the numbers defined at the planning stage helps to determine whether operations are on target.
  • Analyze the root cause: This is necessary in the event of deviation from objectives. When nonconformance to a clinical protocol occurs in the healthcare sector, it is essential to analyze the root causes, such as inadequate medical staff training or resource constraints, to ensure that patients receive quality care.
  • Share results: Sharing results with all workers and managers promotes a culture of transparency and safety.
  • Maintain or revisit the plan: After assessing the performance of a strategy, you need to decide whether to keep, adjust, or review the approach if the results don’t meet expectations.
  • Document: Future progress and permanent problem resolution depend on this sub-step. For example, in the healthcare field, detailed documentation of patient medical records and clinical procedures is necessary to ensure complete healthcare traceability and meet regulatory requirements.

Step 4: Act

The Act step is the last phase of the PDCA cycle and involves three essential sub-stages:

  • Adjust and reassess: When results fall short of expectations, adjustments and reassessment are necessary. For example, if a company fails to meet its target of reducing product defects by 20% in six months, it can review its initial plan and make further changes.
  • Provide feedback: Feedback channels play a vital role in this phase. They enable the gathering of input from employees, customers, and other stakeholders. For example, customer comments on product quality may indicate the need for further improvements.
  • Standardize processes: As part of the Act step, it is essential to deploy corrective measures and standardize all procedures. Standardization ensures that improvements are systematically integrated, and activities are carried out consistently. This process ensures operational stability, lasting success, and practical continuous improvement efforts.
  • Promote a culture of continuous improvement: This means emphasizing the development of a culture where the organization learns from experience, innovates, and adapts constantly.

Iterative Loops of PDCA

The PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) cycle is an iterative process because it involves a series of steps that are continually repeated and refined to achieve continuous improvement. The key to the iterative nature of the PDCA cycle is that, having completed the Act phase, one returns to the Plan phase, building on the knowledge and insights gained in the previous cycle.

This feedback loop allows the plan to be perfected based on experience and the results of previous iterations. The process continues, with each cycle building on the lessons learned from the past, enabling improvement and optimization over time.

Applications of the PDCA Cycle

PDCA for quality management

The PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle has many applications, particularly in quality management. It creates a systematic approach, enabling organizations to evaluate and improve their processes constantly.

PDCA for process improvement

PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) is a powerful process improvement tool. Its iterative nature enables organizations to adapt to changes, to the emergence of new technologies, or evolving customer demands. This adaptability makes it an invaluable tool for developing new operational processes or improving existing ones. Moreover, PDCA fosters employee involvement at all levels of the organization by encouraging them to share their ideas and observations.

PDCA for project management

Integrating PDCA into project management provides a solid framework for ensuring that projects are appropriately managed, continuously improved, and aligned with overall organizational objectives. Project managers can plan in detail using Gantt charts, visualize milestones, and execute projects methodically. They can also assess their progress by comparing expected results and adjusting strategies as they go along.

PDCA for problem-solving

By following the four phases indicated by the acronym PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, and Act), organizations can systematically tackle problems. This method promotes a well-thought-out, structured approach to problem-solving.

Action Plan Management and Task Tracking Solution

Tervene is an ideal ally for maximizing PDCA efficiency. The solution integrates PDCA boards within workspaces and action plan tracking to simplify ongoing initiative management. Tasks and actions can be easily categorized according to PDCA steps for maximum visibility.

Plus, the application offers verification forms, notably audits, and verification checklists, making it easy to review new project roll-outs. The platform also allows scheduling review periods directly in managers’ calendars to ensure follow-up from the right stakeholders. Tervene transforms the PDCA framework into a powerful resource for continuously improving your processes and projects.

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