In the 40 years that I have been consulting and teaching about performance excellence, one model has stood out above all the others in relation to identifying excellence in management. Sometimes the exact words are not used, but if you know the pattern and listen for it, you can detect the pattern of the model. What is this “magical” pattern or model? Why is it useful and how is it used?

What is this model?

The model is called Plan-Do-Check-Act or PDCA. In its simplest form it can be explained something like this:
Plan (P): Plan to do something
Do (D): Carry out your plan
Check (C): Check to see if the plan, once executed, accomplished what you wanted it to accomplish
Act (A): If the results are satisfactory, standardize the plan that is proven to achieve the desired results. Replicate the plan to all applicable areas. This ends the cycle until more improvement is desired. However, if the results are unsatisfactory, analyze the plan and its execution to determine why the plan did not bring about the desired results. Then, determine what changes need to be made to the plan based on that analysis.

Then start the next PDCA cycle using the revised plan that came out of the Act step. Note that a plan can take the form of a checklist, process, procedure, or practice.
The cycle would repeat until you either have a satisfactory plan that will achieve the desired results in a reliable manner or you just quit working on it. “PDCA came from the Japanese interpretation of the ’Deming wheel’ in Dr. Deming’s lectures of 1950 and in 1951 led to the plan-do-check-action or PDCA cycle.” (“Evolution of the PDCA Cycle” by Ronald Moen and Clifford Norman)

Why does this model work?

This model is based on the scientific method: form a hypothesis; test the hypothesis; analyze the data; use the analysis to revise the hypothesis ordraw conclusions. PDCA is one of the simplest and most useful learning cycles that I’m aware of. It can be applied to almost any learning situation. PDCA enables a leader to examine the impact of an executed plan against its original purpose. Then, based on that analysis, the plan is either analyzed and revised or standardized for future use. Many managers either do not know or do not use a basic learning cycle to examine the impact of their actions or decisions against their original purpose. Therefore, very little systematic learning occurs and the quality of future decisions the leader makes does not systematically improve.

PDCA Summary

Executives who lead excellent companies are systematically learning both from themselves and from others. Use of the PDCA model (or another model with the same pattern) is a characteristic of excellent leaders that significantly increases the quality of their decisions through systematic, fact-based learning. This enables the leader to learn from both mistakes and successes. When the plan does not achieve its intended results, an analysis is performed during the Act phase to determine why the plan did not work. When possible, the analysis will get down to the root or fundamental cause. This information will then be used to revise the plan. The revised plan is then executed in the Do phase and the cycle continues. When the plan is successful in achieving its desired results, the plan is then standardized. The standardization aspect of PDCA is where the plan that was successful is documented or remembered in some way so that it can be used again under similar circumstances to reliably produce the desired results. Using a model or process that has been proven to be successful in achieving the desired results significantly increases the chance of repeatable future successes and provides a base for analysis when the desired results were not achieved.