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PDCA is the Breath of Lean

by Mark Donovan
September 17, 2014

PDCA is the Breath of Lean

by Mark Donovan
September 17, 2014 | Comments (10)

I’m always looking for simple ways to explain lean concepts to my team members. I can’t remember if I picked up this idea from someone else, so let me know if I did, but for me, one of the most helpful things I’ve found is to say PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Adjust) should be like breathing. In other words, PDCA is to Lean what breathing is to human beings.  

"What happens if you stop breathing?" I ask my team members. When I ask this, generally there’s a slight pause, then comes a smile and finally people reply, "You die."  Yes, you die. And that is exactly what happens to Lean without PDCA. Lean thinking and practice is not something to be done from time to time. "Oh, we've got a juicy problem here, let's do some PDCA." It really should be the underlying thought process that supports all lean activity. Lean does not and cannot exist without continuous PDCA. Period. 

Thinking about this more philosophically, there are interesting parallels between PDCA and breathing. They both are more effective and powerful the more deeply they are practiced. They both can be practiced actively and improved upon. However, they also function in the background without us much thinking about it. The more you practice each of these things properly—and yes, there’s a proper way to breathe—the more benefit you will receive. These things both can and should be taught. They aren’t easy to teach, however, since both (real PDCA and mindful breathing) go against our culture of rushing to get things done without really thinking about what we’re doing.

Breathing exercises might be part of every school's curriculum, and the same goes for PDCA. Proper breathing gives us increased energy, clarity, and an ability to focus, amongst other things. And hey, these are pretty good attributes to have when practicing PDCA! Scientists are beginning to look at how breathing and mindfulness impacts health… Perhaps it’s time to run some experiments that look at how shallow versus deep breathing impacts performance in the workplace. But I digress… Deep breath.

Please let me know if you find this useful and share any simple ways you have discovered for explaining PDCA or other lean concepts to your team members!

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  coaching,  mindfulness,  PDCA
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10 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban September 17, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
I agree that PDCA (or PDSA, Plan Do Study Adjust) should be the underlying habit. People might start out by having to say "let's do some PDSA" out loud, but they should hopefully eventually just start thinking and acting that way out of habit.

I hear many people in hospitals say they "learned PDSA already," but there's often very little evidence of that mindset being practiced before Lean. You more likely see PPPP (talking an issue to death in committees) or just some Do. Or you see PDJR (Plan Do Justify Rationalize) because nobody wants to admit a "mistake" or the need to Adjust..


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Mark Donovan September 18, 2014
Thanks for your comments Mark.  STUDY vs. CHECK.  Out of habit I use PDCA however I think PDSA is more of what Karen is refering to below when she talks about deepening our practice.  It is so easy to do a quick CHECK but not really grasp the situation.  Hence shallow PDCA.  STUDY implies a deeper dive into understanding and will result in much better adjustments.  I plan to move in that direction with my language and hopefully my practice as well.  :

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Karen Martin September 17, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment
GREAT post, Mark! I never used the breathing analogy before but I will now (and credit you). Taking it the analogy a bit deeper and playing off Mark Graban's comment, meditation and yoga provide the means to learn to breath more deeply and to use the breath to build strength and agility--and to weather stressful conditions, both mental and physical.

When most people get stressed, their breathing becomes shallow. Deep and purposeful breathing serves as a powerful countermeasure. The same can be said for deep vs. superficial application of PDCA and what happens when organizations don't know how to "breath deeply." Love this direction


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Mark Donovan September 18, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this reply
Thanks for your comments Karen.  We so often practice "shallow" PDCA, if that.  We go through the motions because we know we should but without the commitment to really learn, reflect and most importantly act.  I'd love to hear more comments from you and others on how we can deepen our PDCA practice

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Tony Antelman September 19, 2014
Something also, that came to mind for me is music. I used to play the saxohone/flute/trombone/flute and one of the key things was breath control. It improved Tone, Volume, Length of note, Intonation and clarity of thaught for reading music and ability to hear what other's are playing to make sure we are in sync with the others around us

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Mark Donovan September 21, 2014
Great example Tony!  I think just about anywhere we look we will see that deep breathing has a strong positive impact on performance.

Not to get too off topic here but I have been contemplating the impact that rhythm might have in knitting to help establish synchornization on the line and a connection to takt time.  This is a topic I will explore further in a future post.  


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kevin kobett September 20, 2014

The scientific method starts with a hypothesis. For example:

What if we made the wheel round?

What if the earth isn"t the center of the universe?

I breathe better when everyone is using QPDCA (Question-Plan-Do-Check-Adjust).

How do you plan without a hypothesis? Saying the hypothesis is part of the planning process would belittle the importance of the hypothesis.

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Mark Donovan September 21, 2014
Thanks for your comments Kevin.  I agree that having a hypothesis is an essential part of this thought process.  Lumping the hypothesis into the planning process could belittle the importance of that step but does not have to.  Regardless of the "labels," I think it is really important to experiment with finding the most effective ways to teach others to embrace and engage in this thought process that is based upon the scientific method.  We all know it works when practiced correctly and effectively.  Mike Rother's improvement kata is one great process for deepeing PDSA or QPDSA.  What has worked for you? 

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Mark Donovan September 21, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment
A big shout out to Dr. Walter Shewhart and W. Edwards Deming for advancing the understanding and use of the scientific method.  According to Deming they were both "self taught, on a good background of physics and mathematics."  Not surprisingly, Toyota places huge emphasis on the ability to self-develop as a pre-requisite to advancing. 

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kevin kobett September 23, 2014

My experience suggests you must keep things simple.

The word "planning' implies something will be difficult. It needs a plan. This would make me nervous. Similar to the nervousness in math class when you do not have the answer and the teacher is about to call on someone. What if I am called on during planning?

I want to keep things simple. Using questioning as the first step should not cause anxiety. Unlike planning, we ask questions everyday. We want employees question evrything they do.

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