PDCA- Your Problems Can Be Solved!

PDCA- Your Problems Can Be Solved!

Although Dr. Walter Edwards Deming is given credit for the invention of PDCA, it actually comes from a long history of great thinkers that contributed to its development.  That list consists of:


  • Galileo Galilei, the father of modern science conducted designed experiments
  • Sir Francis Bacon, philosopher that believed knowledge generation must follow a planned structure
  • Charles Peirce and William James, known for their contributions to the concept of pragmatism
  • John Dewey, another figure associated with the philosophy of pragmatism
  • Clarence I. Lewis, Integration of pragmatism and empiricism (sensory experience)
  • Walter Shewhart,  Shewhart cycle
  • William Edwards Deming, Deming Cycle
  • Kaoru Ishikawa, popularized the cause and effect (fishbone) diagram

I would like to share my experience with coming to know and love the PDCA cycle.

It was the mid 1990’s when I first saw the acronym.  Each letter was neatly placed in one of the quarters of a pie quadrant and there was one of these symbols on each line of an action item list that was floating around the office.   I was a bit of a greenhorn at the time in a company that had some exposure to TPS, but they were clearly not very far into their journey.  I asked a fellow leader what PDCA stood for and he told me that they basically use it to track the progress of a project.  So when a project was 1/4 of the way complete, they shaded in the “P” and when it was half done, they filled in the “D” and so on.  This really didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but I shrugged it off and accepted it as it didn’t appear that I was going to get a better explanation.

It wasn’t until many years later that I was to truly understand the important influence PDCA has on a successful operation.  It came to me in stages, and I give credit to my first exposure to  our customer that had a mandated corrective action report that we were to fill out whenever we sent them a serious defect.  Because of our lack of understanding of true problem solving, we really didn’t complete those reports correctly.  I know this because I had the opportunity to attend a training seminar that was hosted by our customer.  I was blown away by the statistics that the presenter enlightened us with.  It was long ago, so I don’t remember the exact figures but the message was that the collective number of corrective action reports was:(insert large number here) and the percentage of REPEAT  issues was:(insert a large percentage here).  This meant that we were not getting to the true root cause, we were not implementing true countermeasures and we were not doing true PDCA.  If we had been, my forgotten figures would not have been so astronomical.  This caught my attention and made sense.  Apparently, despite the fact that I appreciated and respected the message, I still didn’t walk away with a full understanding of the entire concept.  I think it was partially due to the immaturity of my personal lean journey and partially due to the strong culture of reactionary management in my company.  Yet, I had the wherewithal to know that the training had touched a nerve.

It was around the early 2000’s that I began a more formal lean training.  I read some helpful books and I also had a very talented teacher (you can read more by clicking here), but we focused more on identifying and removing waste on the shop floor  and very little on the more refined techniques like PDCA.

It wasn’t until after I had trained for several years and decided to stretch my Lean legs and set out on a new adventure in a new company that I got my first real dose of PDCA.  As a new employee in charge of implementing Lean in a company, I immediately went in search of an improvement opportunity and of course, found one.  I decided to send out an email to the managers, informing them of my intentions and it wasn’t long before I heard back from the VP of Operations, Kerry Fox.  Kerry was a strong transformational leader that had an incredible commitment to Lean.  His response was a cautionary one, as he was not supportive of “doing kaizen for the sake of doing kaizen”.  He was clearly an advocate of making sure we were working on the right problems and from there, we were to work on the problems the right way.  After all, we had an infinite amount of problems and limited resources, so we’d better use them wisely.

So now I knew I wasn’t going to get away with just doing a point and shoot approach to implementing Kaizen in my new environment, so I’d better educate myself.  One of the books that really helped me was Understanding A3 Thinking but what really helped me was when I got assigned to leading a Quality Circle problem solving team.  Our company had several plants worldwide and we had annual Quality Circle competitions and my plant had a history of a weak showing.  I began doing research on the formula of QCC and I really learned a great deal by attending a Quality Circle Competition hosted by Honda in Canada.  It became very evident that the top scoring teams did a stellar job in clearly:

  1. Chose a meaningful theme
  2. Set objectives and targets
  3. Understood the problem
  4. Analyzed the root cause
  5. Designed a countermeasure that addressed the root cause
  6. Created a complete plan to implement the countermeasure
  7. Implemented the plan correctly
  8. Checked the results according to the target
  9. Followed through with appropriate actions

Could it really be that simple?  Strangely enough, when I thought about improvements that I had seen and been a part of, the “Do” was the dominating (or maybe lone) step that was executed and we’d neglected so much of the process.  That would explain why so many projects really didn’t stick or provide the payback that was anticipated.  After I learned this great new technique, we began to develop our project in this fashion and when we went to Japan for our competition, we brought home a 2nd place trophy!  Yes, the trophy was nice, but the real prize was the knowledge that was gained about this wonderful problem solving technique.

Out of all of the awesome tools, techniques and concepts attached to Lean Manufacturing, I’d say that PDCA is my personal favorite.  The way I see it, implementing any of the lean tools without doing PDCA will likely end unsatisfactory results.   I also believe that by practicing PDCA, the correct tool, will be applied to the correct problem.   It is such a powerful tool and when used relentlessly, I guarantee it can and will transform companies into world-class learning enterprises.

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  1. William Ryan
    December 07, 2014 10:21 Reply

    I feel that Deming is absolutely correct in his points and vision. I currently see a lot of attention today given to TPS principles and concepts but Deming, Drucker , Ohno,, Shingo and Shewhart were s my main guides… I have this little Q.C. Pocket Guide on Goal Training written for Ford from Deming that is still very relevant today. Today many want to give all lean thinking credit to TPS but I think that many examples of true lean thinking came long before Toyota…There is no mention of the DMAIC cycle in you above article that does compliment the PDCA cycle…

  2. B.W. Robinson
    December 15, 2014 07:41 Reply

    I just wanted to thank you for the great articles. They drive me to better understand lean and also make me more aware of lean opportunities in my everyday work environment.

    • rob@leangenesis.com
      December 16, 2014 21:23 Reply

      My pleasure! I’m glad your enjoying it. To be honest, I’m really enjoying doing it as well.

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