Technology

Process Improvement Cycle: What’s PDCA & How to Apply It

PDCA is the key instrument in the lean project management methodology. Have no idea what we’ve just said? Read on to understand this process improvement method.

Introduction

In a continuous search for strategies that will improve your company’s processes, you’ve come across the PDCA concept. 

They say it’s effective. 

But what exactly is the concept? How would you apply it? What are the implications?

These are the questions we’re answering in the article.

What is the PDCA concept?

PDCA stands for Plan-Do-Check-Act where each word represents the respective stage of the cycle. PDCA, also known as the Deming wheel, is a process improvement model for carrying out and controlling change within an organization. It’s the key tool in the lean project management methodology.

Wait, what did you just say?

Lean project management is a methodology that aims at delivering projects with more value and less waste. To achieve its goals, the approach focuses on the step-by-step implementation of minor improvements and continuous experimentation.

As with any other method in lean project management, PDCA is a cycle — so it has no endpoint. Because it’s split into several stages, the model offers a great deal of flexibility and agility.

When do you need to apply PDCA?

If you and your team are looking to build processes that can be adjusted along the way, PDCA is right for you. This concept is great for small and growing businesses or established companies willing to keep up with the changing environment. 

Let’s look into the four steps of the PDCA cycle and the challenges you may face in each stage.

Plan

The first stage in the cycle is planning. It requires that you figure out what exactly you want to do and why you need it. 

In the planning stage, you’ll need to answer the following questions:

  • What problem do you need to solve?
  • How do you see the problem resolution?
  • What resources do you need?
  • Who is responsible for carrying out the project?
  • What are the objections against starting the project?
  • How can you address them?
  • How do you measure the project performance?
  • When does the project start, and when is it considered completed?

You should start with defining the problem and only then proceed to create a hypothesis on what could resolve it. Avoid trying to have all the answers to all the possible questions at once, but get ready to run the cycle again and again. It’s best to treat the whole project as an experiment so that you stay agile and create an iterative process. 

The challenge

This is the most labor-intensive stage. You and your team will need to collaborate to identify problems, collect the necessary data, create an action plan, define KPIs and many more.

The main challenge of the planning stage is a lack of time to do it properly. It’s common to focus on taking action but not on planning it. To set the project on the right track, you’ll need to spend time collecting enough information before you’re ready to proceed to action.

The 'Plan’ stage is where a lot of time is spent on documentation. You need to create a clear process that people involved can follow. You need to write detailed walkthroughs. You can either spend hours doing it manually or let software like Scribe do it for you.

Scribe will generate visual step-by-step guides by capturing processes while you work. Use Scribe to remove the pain of explaining new workflows or introducing tools to your teammates! 
process improvement cycle

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However, being overly meticulous in the planning stage might impose another challenge — you could simply get stuck in the very first phase. When trying to find the best possible solution with all the stakeholders, you may discover there are several ways of approaching the project. What should you do now? In this case, you’ll need to stop theorizing and act. Remember PDCA is a cycle, and it’s right to repeat it several times until you find the answer.

Do 

The second stage of the PDCA cycle is testing the assumptions made in the first stage. You start small and implement changes that might improve the process with minimal disruption.

The ‘Do’ stage has nothing to do with completing the project. Here you only create a controlled environment and run a test on a small-scale project without interrupting the main workflow. 

Say, you want to improve your sales cycle. You aren’t satisfied with lead nurturing campaigns, and your team has suggested the root of the problem is in the lead scoring model. You need to develop a new model and make it work on scale. 

The project would require designing a completely new automation workflow that will do the work. It could take months. And if it doesn’t prove the hypothesis, you end up wasting a ton of resources. 

With the PDCA model, you’ll save resources and implement a new project step-by-step. After deciding it’s a new scoring model that you need to resolve the problem, you move on to the ‘Do’ phase. You score leads from an audience sample using a different framework manually or by creating a raw automated solution and then nurture them. Meanwhile, the main workflow stays unchanged before the hypothesis is proven right. 

The challenge

In this stage, you’re testing your hypothesis, not finalizing the project. The challenge of the ‘Do’ stage is to find the line between executing the project and finding perfection. 

It’s also difficult to set up a small-scale project that will deliver results significant enough to change the entire workflow. You need to define clear parameters for a test and define which elements determine the results of the project. For instance, in lead scoring remodeling, it’s the audience sample that matters most. 

Check

After running the test, you’re going to analyze the intermediate results. This is the ‘Check’ stage. This is where you take a look at what you’ve achieved and try to understand whether it’s good enough to continue. 

In this stage, try to answer these questions:

  • Have you reached the expected result?
  • What have you achieved? (talk numbers)
  • What can you improve it?
  • Should you continue pursuing the plan?

When you have the data, you may need to adjust the process you’ve developed in the “Plan” stage to achieve better results from future iterations. Even if the test didn’t show the results you expected, it may still provide you with some insight into why it didn’t work.

If there’s no minor adjustment that might help to achieve better results, you should cycle back to the planning stage to create a new hypothesis and prepare for a new try.

The challenge

This is probably the trickiest stage of all. You not only need to check the results but also to make informed decisions about your further steps. It’s nearly impossible to do so without organized project documentation that remembers every step you’ve taken up until this moment.

Scribe Pages can be your project knowledge base where all the information about the processes, outcomes and next steps is stored. This is where you can combine Scribes, embed videos and reflect any findings the 'Check' stage has brought. 

Here's a Scribe Page in action.

Act

If things are going as planned, you’re moving on to the 'Act' stage. Finally, you’re realizing the plan (or its adjusted version) at full scale.

But before you act, you should revisit your resources and make sure you have everything you need. Review your project documentation and double-check whether the guides and specs you’ve prepared are adequate. It’s important that you create standard operating procedures that stakeholders can follow to achieve predictable outcomes (and that you can trace back if something goes wrong).

The challenge

The challenge of the 'Act' stage arises as you complete it. 

Remember how PDCA is a cycle? It means that once you’ve taken action, the project isn’t finished. Next, you need to understand the impact of the project and find opportunities for continuous improvement. It’s only possible if you have clear performance indicators and proper project documentation in place.

You need to stay consistent and stick to the cycle if you want PDCA to work for you. And you’d better make sure you can do it before you start.

The pros and cons of PDCA

Should you apply PDCA or choose another process improvement method? You might want to weigh the pros and cons before answering the question.

Pros

The PDCA cycle is a powerful process improvement method because:

  • It’s a low-risk framework.
  • It’s simple and easy to learn.
  • It results in successful change while reducing waste typical for delivering new projects.
  • It allows you to minimize errors and achieve predictable outcomes.
  • It enables you to make decisions based on data.
  • It helps to create standard operating procedures for repetitive workflows.
  • It can be applied in a range of use cases across a variety of industries.
  • It gives everyone involved visibility into core processes.

Cons 

On the downside, the PDCA framework has certain limitations: 

  • It’s time-consuming.
  • It isn’t applicable to solving urgent issues.
  • It requires commitment from all the stakeholders during the entire project lifecycle (which is recurring).
  • It requires consistent effort.
  • It might take time before tangible results can be seen given that process improvements are taken step-by-step.

However simple the process improvement cycle seems, it takes dedicated work in each stage. It’s a complex approach that allows companies to get started with continuous improvement. You should follow the PDCA cycle to improve repetitive processes while keeping them flexible and adaptable to change.