The Plan, Do, Check, Act Model For Continuous Improvement

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The ‘plan, do, check, act’ (PDCA) model is a process for continual improvement. It’s a systematic approach to problem-solving, which can help develop projects and processes incrementally.

By adopting this model, you can provide your organisation with a framework to achieve improvement in quality, enhance efficiency and drive innovation.

The PDCA model consists of four interconnected stages: plan, do, check and act. In order to promote a culture of continuous improvement in the workplace, these stages are repeated cyclically. After all, what goes around comes around.

By applying this model in the workplace, you can continually improve areas such as managers’ and leaders’ skillset, business performance and team productivity.

Here we’ll look into how it works, including an example of how to put it into practice in the field of health and safety.

Key points:

  • The ‘plan, do, check, act’ model is a framework for continual improvement that can be applied to numerous areas of business. It’s a cyclical approach, which is repeated for incremental improvement over time.
  • The four stages of the PDCA model are:
    • Plan: where you identify an area for improvement, and how to approach it;
    • Do: where you put your plan into practice, gathering data and feedback as you go;
    • Check: where you evaluate the results, identifying areas for improvement; and
    • Act: where you enact the improvements, and complete the cycle.
  • As an involved and ongoing process, it may not be suitable for urgent and immediate situations. However, it can be incredibly useful for improving many aspects of business, such as product development, project management and customer support. It can even be used on a smaller scale for personal development.

A brief history of the PDCA model

The ‘plan, do, check, act’ model as it’s used today has been developed iteratively. Rather pleasingly, much like the principles it promotes, the framework has been continually improved over time. With reference to different stages of its development, it’s also known as the Deming cycle or the Shewhart cycle.

A version of the model first came about in the early 20th century in the Western Electric Company in the States. While working at the company as an inspection engineer, Walter A. Shewhart introduced statistical process control (SPC) as a means to improve manufacturing processes. His work focused on statistical analysis and control to improve quality and reduce variation in production.

From the mid-1920s he went to work for Bell Telephone Laboratories, where he later developed the concept of the Shewhart cycle. This comprised three fundamental stages: specification, production and inspection. This iterative cycle aimed at improving quality through a feedback loop, where data was collected, analysed and applied to drive continual improvement. However, the Shewhart Cycle didn’t include an explicit planning stage.

The model was further refined by a student of Shewhart, W. Edwards Deming, while working in Japan in the 50s. He introduced the PDCA concept to Japanese industrialists, playing a significant role in Japan’s post-WWII economic transformation. His principles and the PDCA model formed the foundation of what’s known as Total Quality Management (TQM), and are still used extensively in business today.

Despite sometimes being referred to as the Deming cycle, it’s worth noting that Deming always credited Shewhart with the invention of this framework. Indeed, he referred to it as the Shewhart cycle himself.

plan do act check model

Fig. 1. The Plan, Do, Check, Act Model

What are the stages of the PDCA model?

Stage #1: Plan

As with so many things, planning is key, and comprises the first stage of the PDCA model. In this phase, your team should define objectives, set achievable goals, and outline a detailed plan to achieve them.

Please note that it’s always worth setting SMART goals: that is, goals which are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timebound.

First off, you identify either a problem to be tackled, or an opportunity for improvement. Or both.

Next, conduct a thorough analysis, establishing clear targets. At this stage, you’ll also develop clear strategies for achieving these targets, and allocate the necessary resources.

Key point: It’s important to agree on and define an actionable roadmap before you spring into action. You’re laying the foundation for the following stages, so it’s good to be well prepared, while also ensuring your plan is in line with your organisation’s overall objectives.

Stage #2: Do

Once the planning stage is complete, the second stage is putting it into action. This will take effective communication and collaboration between all team members involved, and should be implemented in a controlled manner. In other words, try to stick as closely as you can to any strategies or processes outlined in the planning stage.

Key point: While the implementation is important in itself, this stage is also crucial for gathering data and feedback. What you learn from this stage will feed into the subsequent stages of the PDCA cycle.

Stage #3: Check

Once you’ve implemented your plan, gathering data and feedback as you go, the next phase is to mark your homework. In evaluating and measuring the results of your implementation, you can compare the actual outcomes with the desired targets and objectives established in the planning stage.

This stage aims to identify any deviations or gaps between the expected and actual results. It should also give you an idea of how robust the type of data you’re collecting is, along with your performance metrics.

Key point: If your planning has been sound, you should gain valuable insights into the effectiveness of your implementation. It should highlight strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement.

Stage #4: Act

The fourth (but not final) stage of the model is to act: in this case, making the necessary adjustments and improvements based on the results of the previous stage.

This involves making informed decisions to address any shortcomings or discrepancies identified during the evaluation. You’ll be putting your problem-solving abilities to use, taking corrective actions, and innovating where required.

Key point: This stage emphasises the importance of learning from the implementation process. The knowledge you’ve acquired will help refine your processes and optimise business performance. Plus it’s also the basis for the subsequent planning stage. Because once these improvements are enacted, the cycle begins again.

How can the PDCA model be applied in the workplace?

So far, we’ve just looked at the theory. But there are numerous practical applications for the PDCA framework in the workplace.

You might use it for innovation and product development, for instance. It can be used for training and developing employees, in project management, improving your customer support… In other words, there are numerous aspects of your organisation which could benefit from this framework.

Here we’re going to take the example of health and safety, and see how using the PDCA model would work in practice.

*Please note that this isn’t an exhaustive list of steps you should take – but rather should give you a flavour for how the model can be applied.

Step #1: Planning your workplace health and safety

Planning here has your workplace health and safety policy at its heart. To define this, you need to work out where you are currently, where you need to get to, and how you intend to get there.

Think about:

  • Who’s responsible for certain health and safety tasks. You’ll need to appoint a competent person, for instance.
  • How to prepare for emergencies, such as serious injuries or fire, and procedures to follow in the event they occur.
  • What health and safety key performance indicators (KPIs) your organisation should track.

Step #2: Putting your health and safety policy into practice

Next, you put your plan into action. Throughout, you should be recording any data and relevant feedback.

Actions are likely to include:

  • Assessing your risks, prioritising vulnerable workers.
  • Providing staff and other workers with information and training.
  • Providing facilities, such as adequate bathrooms, first-aid kits, fire extinguishers etc.
  • Recording all incidents (find out more about this in our health and safety KPI guide).

Step #3: Check your health and safety performance

Evaluate how the policies and procedures are performing. This monitoring will help to understand the cause of any problems which may have occurred, and how they can be addressed.

Monitoring can include:

  • Making regular workplace checks, and carrying out maintenance.
  • Investigating any incidents which may have occurred.
  • Following up absences from work, and ascertaining whether there’s something you can do to improve conditions for workers.

Step #4: Act on any data or information you’ve gathered

Data and information you’ve gathered from step #3 will give you an idea if your policies and procedures are effective, or if there’s room for improvement.

You may decide you need to update your health and safety policy based on certain information, or if things change in the workplace. For example:

  • If there have been changes to processes, or the workplace itself – such as an increase in the number of staff.
  • If you’ve learnt from any accidents or near misses.
  • If you’ve learnt something from staff, such as via feedback forms.

**Once you’ve reviewed your measures, you can put new policies and/or procedures into place. These then become enacted, and form your next plan to manage workplace health and safety. As such, the cycle is complete.

What are the pros and cons of the PDCA model?

We think that the PDCA model is a robust framework for business improvement. There are a couple of drawbacks to using it though, which we’ll turn to first. These essentially stem from the level of involvement required.

Firstly, the framework may not be helpful for urgent situations. If you need a quick turnaround, the amount of process involved in the PDCA model could prove to be a bottleneck.

Similarly, the framework may not be appropriate where radical innovation is what’s called for. It’s a fairly slow process, usually requiring buy-in from numerous stakeholders.

However, if you have the time and resources to approach projects thoroughly, it can be an invaluable tool for improving workplace processes, products, and can even be applied to personal performance.

By breaking its subject down into smaller development stages, the model is an effective tool for exploring each stage, and making incremental improvements.

Picture of Matthew Channell
Matthew Channell
Matthew is TSW Training’s Commercial Director. He writes about performance focussed learning, leadership, and management approaches that have real-world, sustainable impact.
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