On not teaching PDCA

[Update: the A3 I refer to here is now available via our Resources page]

[Update: see also the Changeban game which can be used to introduce many of the concepts explored in this post]

I’ve had the pleasure of running my classes and workshops in the company of experienced Lean practitioners, and I’m always amused when I see that lightbulb moment. “I see what you’re doing – it’s PDCA!”. We exchange knowing smiles and carry on.

At risk of being burned at the stake for heresy, I will admit however that I no longer teach the canonical improvement cycle PDCA by name or in its original form.

Otherwise known as the Deming Cycle, PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) and its close cousin PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) describe an experimental approach to improvement.

Here’s part of the problem (and I’m quoting verbatim from my book): The words Plan, Do, Check, and Act don’t mean what you think they mean – they’re even a little misleading – until you use them with the word “experiment”:

  • Plan an experiment (based on a hypothesis)
  • Do (conduct) the experiment
  • Check (or Study) the results (or outcome) of the experiment
  • Act on the results, changing either the hypothesis or the system accordingly, sharing appropriately

Instead talking abstractly about experiments (with or without the health warning), I now dive straight into reframing our action ideas Lean Startup style (early 2010’s instead of early 1950’s):

We believe that <actionable change>
will result in <meaningful impact>.
We’ll know that we have succeeded when <measureable signals>.

We complete Plan in the form of an A3 (named after the paper size, and the vehicle for a coaching conversation). This includes various kinds of risk and stakeholder analysis and a list of pilot experiments that will (we hope) take us closer to our goal and tell whether our change is likely to fly (and we aim for it to fly high).

Another problem is that there’s nothing at all inevitable about the “cycle” part. So, having shown how to frame and develop an experiment, it’s important address how a portfolio of experiments (plural) will be managed.

Check, Do and Act can be addressed visually by a kanban board. This too is inspired by Lean Startup, adapted to change management purposes by Jeff Anderson (with a couple of David Anderson-inspired tweaks for the right-hand column):

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 21.09.12

There’s plenty to talk about here:

  • How to encourage ideas to join the board (under New) and what happens next
  • The various ways in which they can finish
  • The key questions of the middle three columns – What are we agreeing and with whom? Can we do it?  Does it help?
  • Feedback loops – the opportunities afforded by the organisation to review progress and thereby sustain the change process

In summary, we split PDCA into two:

  1. a framing part, learned by doing, represented (if you wish) by an A3
  2. a follow-through part, highlighting a common organisational weakness, represented by the kanban board and accompanying feedback loops (which I stress)

As a bonus, we observe in passing the applicability in a development context of what workshop attendees have just practised in a change context. Meanwhile, our debt to PDCA is acknowledged in our books (mine, Eric Ries’s, and many others). And here too of course 🙂

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