When in Doubt, It's All pdCA

It’s all PDCA! My long term mentor and friend Rodger Lewis would often get to the end of his patience with me and conclude our lesson with this simple, true and profound exclamation.  It is all plan, do, check act.  What did he mean?

First, what is pdCA? The plan, do, check, act cycle (or plan, do, study, act cycle for the purists out there) is what W. Edwards Deming called the cycle of continuous improvement.  The Deming Institute says, “The PDSA Cycle is a systematic series of steps for gaining valuable learning and knowledge for the continual improvement of a product or process. Also known as the Deming Wheel, or Deming Cycle, the concept, and the application was first introduced to Dr. Deming by his mentor, Walter Shewhart of the famous Bell Laboratories in New York.” (my emphasis added).

Look, it is pretty simple.  Make a plan.  From problem-solving thinking, you could think of the plan as what should (or shouldn’t) have happened.  It might be a target condition (all the patients discharged by noon), or it might be a target (complete five gas masks every hour, today).

Now, do the process to hit the plan.

Now, check to see if what you did met the plan.  If it didn’t, act: adjust the process so the next time around, you hit the plan. In other words, improve the process.

My mentor, Lewis, made a point to teach us that while the pdCA cycle is never-ending, you often have to start somewhere.  Somewhere was at eleven o’clock, which meant, if you are facing a flat pdCA cycle, you start somewhere between act and plan.  We called that starting point “Analysis,” which pleasantly started with an A and meant that we didn’t have to modify the pdCA cycle heretically.

The question is, what do you do at eleven o’clock? How do you analyze before you plan. Leader’s Standard Work should activate analysis as part of the coaching cycle. As the transformation begins, what leaders do on a daily basis begins to change, radically.  Part of the leader’s job is to go and see to get the facts so he can grasp the situation.  Lewis called this the “three G’s” – go and see, get the facts and grasp the situation.  It is directly related to Taichi Ohno’s practice of direct observation.  Once the leader grasps the true nature of a situation or – even better – a problem, he can formulate adjustments to the process, improving it, giving it the very next best shot at hitting the plan or the target.

The thing about pdCA is that it really might be part of the DNA for the rest of the operational excellence strategy.  Every component in every level of the system has pdCA designed into the way it works.  Without it, each component would bring only limited help to the others.

  • Problem-solving: what should have happened (the plan), what did happen (do and check), how can we contain what happened, so it doesn’t get any further (act), why did it happen (analysis), now what should we do so that doesn’t happen again (adjust).


  • Innovation (suggestion) system: that doesn’t work real good (check), what if I make a quick change (act), what was the effect of that (analysis), it worked (plan do), let’s make sure it keeps working (check)

Gary Convis, former president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, North America once said that after working at Toyota for ten years, he was just beginning to understand the plan, do, check, act cycle.   Like my CEO friend says: looks simple, plays hard. Lewis, wizened and salty, knew pdCA deeply and knew that the “all” in "...it's all pdCA..." meant that every part of the system must obey the pdCA cycle.  He also knew that at the end of every proverbial rope – when patience was gone – drag it all back to the pdCA cycle and begin again. It’s all pdCA!