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Isn’t PDCA enough? Why do we always need to complicate things?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Isn’t PDCA enough? Why do we always need to complicate things?

Certainly, we should keep things simple, but not oversimplify either. Let’s take a Gemba, this column for example. I do want to improve it. I believe in PDCA, so:

  1. P: I’ll plan a change
  2. D: I’ll try it out
  3. C: I’ll check if it worked
  4. A: I’ll amend it, adopt it, or abandon it

PDCA is the perfect tool for problem solving. But that’s only half the question…But what changes?

Topic? Style? Length? Medium? Paywalls are all the rage these days. The blogging community is explaining that free blogs have had their time; there are too many of them anyhow and a paywall is a solution to select a more engaged audience and do more quality work – as well as generate a revenue stream. Well? Should I?

PDCA is a great discipline to improve, but one has to know to improve towards what. PDCA is not enough, you also need a North Star, and then understand where your performance gaps are – which is the tricky part.

The Aim of Gemba Coach

For instance, what is the aim of this column? (And I’m not even talking about goals; never had any for this blog). Writing it weekly since August 2009 – we just past the 10-year mark. Whatever for? (Funny enough, the first Gemba Coach column was on “5S again and again and again,” which should tell us something).

Should the goal be increased readership? That a quantifiable measure and a nice one as it’s gone steadily up – everyone likes improving metrics. Or conversion – how many people land on the Gemba Coach page and then click on to look at something else on lean.org. Or engagement – how many people are fussed enough to share it, or excited enough (positively or negatively) to actually comment? Or, as is the Internet way, pick on a detail, interpret it out of context and redirect the reader to their own blog.

As a writer, none of these goals are particularly motivating. I wanted to write about what makes lean both unique and interesting. And, so, precisely as you ask, what makes the full system of lean necessary to grasp lean, and not simply a piece, such as PDCA, or TWI, or kanban, or any single module. I find lean fascinating because it’s a full system of thinking, and as such, the only complete alternative we have to the traditional {exploit revenue territories / manage by numbers / standardize best practices / defend turf by power} business model.

My aim is to continuously show that lean is a distinctive, concrete, and proven alternative to mainstream management, which is both more profitable and sustainable and that leads you to develop less wasteful technical solutions which put less pressure on the environment – something I believe we have an urgent pressing need of. My ideal is to write so rivetingly that I attract new people to the cause and energize old believers to double their efforts. Ha!

But how do we turn this into a concrete time-framed quantifiable goal? The slippery slope is to take the easiest number available: page views. There is a good story there. It’s very hard to find standards about pageviews, but I understand that anything above 5,000 a month is OK, and we’re looking at twice or thrice that. Nice. Also, if you look at the data with a naked eye and are feeling generous there is a slight upward trend. Good pitch – easy to sell.

Except that page views were always “nice to have” but never the main purpose of the blog.

If we accept the mission creep towards page views, we’ll start thinking about what to change to increase page views and doing PDCA on the wrong aim.

It’s incredibly tempting because if you go back to the challenge - show that lean is unique and interesting – and take that aim seriously, how do you know you perform? More page views could mean the opposite, watering down the message in order to catch more traffic. Or maybe page views are increasing much slower than the total interest in lean, which could mean that the blog is becoming irrelevant although the number improves.

Principles for Aiming Accurately

If you look at the pieces themselves, how do you evaluate performance regarding “unique and interesting”? Again, not easy. Thinking this through over the years, I’ve come to narrow it down to:

  1. Gemba based – there needs to be a concrete Gemba story as a starting point;
  2. Uniquely lean – focusing on some aspect of the lean system that is different from any other management method;
  3. Well written – a constant effort to find a cool style; as clear and punchy and fun (and hopefully elegant), as can be;
  4. Catchy storytelling – keeping the reader’s attention 'till the conclusion.

And now I can start thinking about what to change:

  • What should I change to convey a greater Gemba feeling to each column?
  • What should I change to make lean more interesting? More unique?
  • How can I improve my style?
  • How can I tell better stories?

Interestingly, when looking at these performance dimensions, one can see obvious trade-offs – gaining on one but losing on others, which is precisely why changes should be considered carefully.

Once the performance criteria (quality characteristics to use lean terminology) are clearer, PDCA takes its full sense, and indeed, better than changing things randomly.

But what about changing one of these performance dimensions? For instance, my editor has recently suggested we post the column on Linkedin after publishing it on lean.org. We’ve been seeing the conversation move to Linkedin over the years, and have been at a loss about what to think or how to react. If we look at the aim, sharing convincingly, surely the medium matters.

The really deep and structuring question is: should we add a fifth dimension to the north star: popular medium?

Again, PDCA won’t help because the only way to discover more is to try it and see. In this case, publishing on Linkedin is not about problem solving (we’re not sure we have a problem in the first place), but problem finding – doing something to learn about it and discover what the new place means.

PDCA is a powerful tool to improve known situations. When aims and quality characteristics are clear, making one change at a time and rigorously checking the effects makes perfect sense and is the key to detailed, disciplined learning. Absolutely. No debate.

The Other Half of the Question

But restricting oneself to PDCA also means abandoning strategic thinking to either someone else or, as is often the case, to the path of least resistance, such as switching the aim to page views because they’re easy to measure. The hard thinking part lies in:

  1. Are we following the right aim?
  2. Have we correctly grasped the performance dimension to reach this aim?
  3. Do we all agree?

These questions often have unclear answers where everyone feels that if they just get on with whatever they’re doing it’ll sort itself out in the end. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. The great thing about lean as a system is that it has the tools (Challenge -> North Star -> Performance characteristics) to explore the strategic dimension of improvement and direct the kaizen effort to deeper thinking beyond outputs into understanding outcomes.

PDCA is the perfect tool for problem solving. But that’s only half the question. The other half is problem finding: enacting a change to explore a new situation; trying something to “logic escape” – to take an Ohno phrase. Sometimes you need to just try something and see what happens.

4 Comments | Post a Comment
Oleg Zupnik September 11, 2019

That's why I like Improvement KATA way of thinking, where you have the Challenge, Current Condition and the PDCA experiments towards Next Target Condition.

Will Homel September 19, 2019

I think the key here is adding detail to a concept rather than complicating it. PDCA is a useful concept because it is simple, but the tradeoff with increased simplicity is often increased ambiguity. For example, people who hear about PDCA often have trouble defining the difference between "Do" and "Act." As you pointed out, to "Do" is to try, and to "Act" is to amend, adopt or abandon (adapt is another "A" word that fits). This opens up the question of how each of these phases is facilitated. Answering such questions about the details, even when the concept is well known, is the primary benefit of forums like this (and LinkedIn) assuming they are used effectively. 

Mark Graban September 22, 2019

I'm not sure I understand the second part of the original question if I were to try to answer. What is "complicating things"? Other Lean practices? Methods like Toyota Kata?

I once read a quote from a Toyota leader saying something like, "The key to our success is using PDCA more often and more diligently than our competitors." But that's clearly not all they do.

I think one cause of struggle in "implementing Lean" is when people push solutions instead of going through high-level or low-level PDCA cycles. They're in Do mode or Plan-Do mode. 

How often is there a lack of proper planning? How often does that planning not engage people properly in our rush to Do? How often is the Check and Adjust lacking??

I see a lot of stubborn Plan / Do and I'm not surprised when that struggles or fails.

Mark Graban September 22, 2019

There are pros and cons to publishing on LinkedIn.


The engagement and network effects. Everytime somebody comments or likes it, that gets shared with their network. 

When somebody replies to a comment of yours, you get notified (something the Lean Post and this blog doesn't do... which is "standard" blog functionality from 15 years ago).

So, you might reach a wider audience and have more robust conversations. 


I think it's harder (impossible?) to find the content via Google since you need a LinkedIn account to find the content. But, if you're also posting it here, that problem is mitigated.

Posting on LinkedIn *is* something you could do a small test for. It's low cost (time) and low risk. A walled paywall site is more effort to set up and more risk... 

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