The cycle of Plan-Do-Check-Act

The practice of continuous improvement has its roots in the work of W. Edwards Deming, who proposed a set of transformational theories and teachings that changed the way businesses think about quality, management and leadership. This approach is based on Deming’s admonishment that meaningful improvement, especially when structured, process-oriented and employee-centered, improves products, services and employee satisfaction.
Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) Cycle is divided into four phases that help leaders analyze and improve a single process. The cycle provides for continuous review until the process is performing well in response to the aims of the unit and organization.
Plan. Before the improvement or introduction of a process, it is important to have some understanding of the current process, if any exists. An easy way to accomplish this is to create a flowchart that illustrates the steps in the process and how they are carried out. This action makes it easier to pinpoint more precisely the issue with the current process or what a replacement or additional process needs to achieve.
Do. Deming suggests that a process improvement should be implemented as a pilot until there is certainty that it works. He believes it is too risky to use the new process throughout the organization until you know it works better than the old.
Check. Leaders should evaluate improvements by determining if the revamped or new process is beneficial in both the short and long terms. If the process works, it can be scaled up, and the organization can move on to the final PDCA step: Act. If the results are inconclusive, the cycle should return to the previous step or to the beginning. This is why the PDCA approach is cyclical — to allow leaders to work in all dimensions at once to ensure that the process, whether existing or proposed, is working.
Act. Once success has been achieved at the check phase, characterized by evaluating the process’s effectiveness, the process should be introduced organization-wide. It is important to continue measuring effectiveness during this phase. And, once again, if problems are encountered, the PDCA cycle allows for continued iterations until the process is optimized and perfected. The phases represent individual actions that not only overlap but also allow for reverting back to the previous phases to ensure that every conceivable aspect of formulating, piloting and assessing the process has been considered.
On this note, I offer a word of caution: Applying PDCA effectively can be intense and time-consuming. There will be repetition and overlap. It is important, therefore, to first establish the value of the process to the organization’s advancement. If this value is confirmed, the cycle can be used to create a flowchart, identify appropriate remedies, implement the process on a localized basis, measure effectiveness in this environment, scale it throughout the organization and continue monitoring it to ensure long-term viability.

The assessment process is critical not only in the act phase but also throughout the other phases — and beyond the PDCA cycle altogether. As improvements occur, leaders must monitor, evaluate and build upon them to ensure that they are contributing to continuous improvement that supports movement toward loftier ambitions.

Alex Johnson, Ph.D. is president of Cuyahoga Community College