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Am I doing PDCA correctly?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

How do I know if I’m doing PDCA correctly?

Very good question! PDCA is indeed the mainstay of a lean company. Toyota used to represent itself as a pyramid of PDCA cycles building on a foundation of Toyota Way (its values: challenge, genchi genbutsu, kaizen, respect, teamwork) tending towards its goal: long-term prosperity and growth as an organization. That sounds heavy going for a simple Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, but I guess that you’ve found out for yourself there is nothing simple about teaching – or learning PDCA.

Firstly, context: where does PDCA fit in the larger picture on the shop floor? In order to effectively “grow the company as an organization”, we’re trying to do three things:

  1. Express business challenges in terms of Quality, Lead-time, Delivery and Morale. This is an essential point because it forces you to express vague business problems (“sales are behind plan”) in an operational way (“we’ve had too many complaints and we’re late on delivery”) that you can actually act on as opposed to look for escapes (“our new product will fix that”).
  2. Involve the management line in solving the problem. Fixing performance is not a staff issue, but a line one. We don’t expect the quality department to come up with better audits or better procedures to improve quality. We expect the production department to analyze the causes of customer complaints, figure out what they do wrong and improve it – then talk to engineering or supply chain, figure out what went wrong there and improve it (we do expect the Quality department to provide correct data about customer complaints and defects, in a way that doesn’t hinder value-adding work).
  3. Small step by small step. We don’t expect a PDCA exercise that will make the entire problem go away. If it were that simple, we would have fixed it long ago. What we’re looking for is problems small enough that we can go to the root cause and figure out by this kind of “problem sampling” what is really going on. The PDCA exercise is not meant to “fix” the problem. It’s meant to understand the problem’s causes so that we can improve the company’s way of working.

PDCA has to be seen in the context of the basic lean values of Challenge (relate the PDCA to Quality, Lead-time, Productivity or Morale), genchi genbutsu (go to the workplace and take a specific problem that every one can see and grasp), kaizen (start small and improve step-by-step), Respect (by understanding the perspective of the various people involved in the real-life situation so that we develop a joint understanding) and Teamwork (developing individual insight in the problem and learning to work together). The underlying assumption is that any growing company develops “big company disease” – in my experience, big can start at twenty people – and the PDCA is a key moment where line managers show their leadership what they’re doing wrong in a very specific instance.

This is very powerful, as 1) the line learns to solve its own problems but also 2) leaders learn to see how they created the problem (without meaning to) by some policy or decision taken for completely different reasons. Too often, tactical choices become policy, with dire consequences. PDCA is the antidote.

To get started, you therefore need a business concern, a willing middle-manager and a small, defined problem to look into.

First, Plan. Plan starts from an important premise: there is a good way to do the work. In lean thinking, any problem is expressed as a gap between a standard (whether a regular performance or an ideal) and the actual situation. This is a value judgment. Whenever you walk the Gemba with senior management in many companies you discover that in many instance people just work with what they have – they no longer feel there is a way to work well, they’re just happy to get through the day with all the crap that is thrown at them. Asking oneself “what is the standard”:

  • Standard performance: what should we expect to achieve? in terms of customer impact, delivery on time, time it takes, safety of the task, etc.
  • Standard process: how should we expect to work? In terms of having a clear sequence of tasks, with a clear understanding of right/wrong at each step and clear vision of what working conditions (Manpower, Machine, Materials, Method) we need to achieve this.

Is already making a strong stand – it assumes there is a right way to work as opposed to just getting stuff done.

Don’t be surprised if you run into trouble at this very first step of PDCA – you’re touching on some deeper value issues than appears at first glance. Three points need to be clear at the Plan stage:

  1. What is the gap between Standard Performance and Actual Performance and which part of Quality, Lead-time, Productivity, Morale does the problem impact?
  2. What does the manager think the main cause is?
  3. How do they plan going about addressing this?

Second, Do. Do is a tricky part because when you have given people enough of a hard time on specifying their problem, they’re eager to jump in and “do” something – the action plan comes out in minutes flat.

Unfortunately there is a deep bias in the way our brains are constructed. We unconsciously (emphasis on unconsciously) replace any complex problem we’re faced with a problem we know how to solve. Most people take the opportunity of “do” to come up with what they’ve always done – or wanted to. In many cases, this will tend to reinforce the problem rather than solve it, and gets you nowhere in terms of learning. To benefit from “Do” you need to answer two questions:

  1. What skills gap explains the process gap?
  2. Who needs to be trained by when?

The first response to “Do” is to purchase, replace, spend. To learn from “do” you need to switch to “who learns what how”: a different kind of action plan.

Third, Check. Check needs to be planned from the Plan stage – if the measure is not in place before the action plan, how can we tell whether we’ve improved or not. With any measure, nothing works either completely or not at all. The hard lesson about lean is that quality and productivity are in the details: there are no generalities, only specific cases.

 “Check” is really about understanding:

  1. In which situations the action plan worked?
  2. In which it didn’t?
  3. Why the difference?

Fourth, Act. Learning is different from understanding. Learning supposes an actual change in behavior. In many cases, doing something new is not that hard, but stopping an existing habit is. Institutions are not resistant to change per se. Actually, they change all the time in order to remain the way they are – that’s their goal, really, self-replicate. Challenging the status quo is hard. The real test of Act is therefore to abandon the rules or behaviors that maintain the status quo:

  • Adopt
  • Adjust
  • Abandon

What is the fundamental purpose of PDCA? It’s not simply to succeed at solving this or that problem but to create space to think for every employee. To keep up their motivation, employees, people, need to feel they’re not just cogs in the machine. work is neither Modern Times nor Brazil. work is about aligning individual fulfillment with a contribution to company success. In motivation, we always hear about the complex part, incentives, recognition, and so on. Space to think is free. Space to think and discuss with one’s manager is simple, and the simplest source of motivation within local teams.

I once read an account of special forces team preparing for a mission. They carried out a “walk through, talk through” exercise in which they discussed every step of the plan in minute detail and every one would contribute question, challenges, and suggest way to make sure this part of the plan would work out. Such a practice both ensures a higher probability of success as every one knows the devil is in the details, but also bonds the team together and intensifies collaboration. PDCA is about doing the same in less intense situation, within the regular routine or normal work.

You’re doing PDCA correctly if you use the mechanics of the PDCA cycle to create such space to think and to discuss that binds the team together and motivates both personal engagement and team involvement.

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