PDCA cycle and continuous improvement

PDCA cycle and continuous improvement

The key competitive advantage today is today is your speed of learning, improving and adapting – in personal and business life. Improvements can be done as constant small incremental improvements over a longer period of time (kaizen) or big focused quantum leap improvements (kaikaku) that completely redefine your business or life strategy in certain areas.

And Kaizen Blitz is the term used for an intensive and focused period of implementing improvements with the goal of achieving lightning fast progress and growth.

All the change in the Kaizen and Kaikaku philosophy is done by following the PDCA cycle. Theoretically the PDCA is really easy to understand and thus also very easy to implement, but people unfortunately still rarely employ this basic process of change and improvement.

They rather do the same thing over and over again in hopes of getting different results. Don’t be one of them because that’s not how the world works. First you have to change yourself and your behavior and only then can you enjoy better results. The PDCA cycle of change has to become a part of your daily life and how you operate.

The problem that appears when you decide to change and improve is that you don’t know which change will bring the desired results and which one won’t. You can only assume. Following the PDCA cycle helps you manage this uncertainty.

First you plan a change based on your assumptions or hypotheses. Then you do the planned change in a very controlled environment or perform an experiment, in other words. The next step is checking the results and doing the analysis of where the change is leading you.

The last step is to act accordingly or to decide if you’ll keep the change in your life or pivot to something else. When you make this final decision, you already enter a new cycle of planning and implementing the next change in the queue.

Consequently, the cycle never ends and you can easily follow the process of continuous improvement. You enter the upward spiral of change.

That’s where the name PDCA cycle comes from – Plan, Do, Check, Act; and that’s the process to follow in your personal life to become the best version of yourself.

  • Plan is about what and why
  • Do is about performing an experiment and testing
  • Check is about analysis, reflection and introspection
  • Act is about implementation and corrective action

PDCA cycle

Plan

The first logical step in the PDCA cycle is planning. You have to sit down and think. You have to think about the final outcome you want to achieve or the problem you want to solve.

By planning, you want to clarify what kind of improvements you want to implement, decide which opportunity to follow, and write down your assumptions (hypotheses or educated guesses) about what kind of a behavioral change will probably lead you to the desired result.

You need to set measurable and attainable goals, and you need a strong why that emotionally empowers you and reminds you why you want to achieve something.

The basic idea of the planning phase is to design a set of controllable experiments, where you implement a change on a manageable scale, so you can analyze possible effects on a greater level.

The fact is that only by doing and putting your assumptions to the test and then reflecting on the results, are you able to see if your assumptions in the plan are right or wrong. By doing and reflecting, you can decide to validate or reject (confirm or negate) your hypotheses.

That leads us to the do and check phases of the PDCA cycle.

Do

In the doing phase, you implement the plan. In a very controlled way, you change your behavior that will potentially lead to a different result. With doing, the plan meets reality.

When you change your behavior, you interact differently with your environment and that reshapes the relationships and the direction in which the environment is evolving. Thus any change causes friction and stress to the established system, and consequently that leads to a polarization of external factors.

Polarization means that every external factor has to become a blocker or a backer of your change. When you act differently, you have supporters of change and forces that want to put things back as they were. And you never know how polarization will happen.

That means your plan mustn’t consider only how the change will affect you and your life, but also how it will affect your environment. But only when you do things in real life and you get the first-hand experience (Genchi Genbutsu), you finally see things as they are in reality and then you can compare them to your plan and assumptions.

The properly executed do phase is very easy to spot. You always:

  • Start with a new behavior
  • Stop with an old behavior
  • Or do both

Check

The next step is analyzing the results. The check step is not about auditing, but about reflecting. That’s why some people prefer to call it the PDSA cycle, where check is swapped with study. With reflection (or introspection, as it’s often called)  you analyze how the change affected you and your environment after changing your behavior.

In the check phase, you analyze which things went well, what didn’t go as planned and expected, and what could have been done differently to get better results. You also brainstorm ideas for potential next improvements and changes. So in the check phase, you need a clear answer to the following questions:

  • What went well during an experiment?
  • What didn’t go that well?
  • How could I do things differently?
  • How can I implement a new change?

In scientific terms, you do the evaluation – you compare the results with the plan. You validate or reject your hypotheses. You convert data into information, so you can draw final conclusions and insights and act accordingly. In the check phase, you learn how to act based on testing and experimenting.

You do validated learning. The 5 Whys analysis can be a great help when you are performing the check phase.

Act

The final step in the PDCA cycle is acting based on the conclusions you got from the experiment. It’s about implementing corrective actions (new behavior) based on your plan, experiment’s results and reflection insights. There is a simple decision you have to make:

  • Persevere
  • Restore
  • Pivot

If the change brought the results you wanted, you persevere. The new behavior becomes the new baseline, the new standard how you operate. We often say that new behavioral patterns are enACTed.

If the change didn’t work as expected and had negative effects, you have two choices. You can either go back to your old behavior (restore) or you can pivot to something completely new.

The very important part when you come to the act phase is that you simultaneously enter the new PDCA cycle and already plan a new improvement and experiment. The PDCA cycle never stops and that’s what leads to constant validated learning and improvements.

How to define success and life metrics

PDCA cycle and personal life management

There are several ways how you can use the PDCA cycle in your personal life. Let’s look at a few unique ideas. First you need a plan to even enter the cycle, of course. Examples of plans that can serve as the P part of the PDCA cycle are:

  • Goal Journey Maps for specific goals you have
  • Not-to-do list with all the behaviors you don’t perform no matter what
  • Improvement list with all the ideas of how you can improve yourself
  • Learning queue

Based on your plan, you have to design and perform a set of experiments to see what works for you as an individual and what doesn’t. You perform experiments by being in the search mode. You set hypotheses, perform an experiment and collect data. You can find a lot of information on this blog how to do all that.

The next step is reflection and it’s an extremely important step in everything you do in life. You never just do things because you’ve always done them the same way. You always have to think through why you are doing things as you are doing them and where that leads you. That’s what reflection is all about – better understanding yourself, your environment and relationships, and thus acting better.

By performing reflection, you gain superior insights. You understand how to act in a different way to get better results. Then you can properly update your plans and repeat the cycle over and over again. Whatever you plan to do in life, simply follow the PDSA cycle.

Last but not least, a part of following the PDCA cycle is failure. Success is a lousy teacher, and failure is the best one; if properly combined with reflection and adjustments based on the insights.

That way you never really fail, you just find ways how things don’t work and that leads you one step closer to success. The only condition is that you really learn from failure and don’t just use it as an excuse to ease the pain.

Following the PDCA cycle doesn’t only lead to Kaizen Blitz and constant improvement, but also helps you stay flexible about how you will get to your goals. Reflections after acting enable you to find better ways to achieve your goals (with less effort and resistance) and that means being more flexible in life. And in the end, the most flexible are the ones who always survive.

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